Research indicates that there are generally low levels of mental health literacy in the community. General beliefs and misunderstandings about mental health affect community responses to eating disorders. Understanding the facts about eating disorders can reduce stigma, increase awareness and consequently improve the prevention, early identification and help-seeking among sufferers.
The National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) have identified five common misconceptions about eating disorders among communities.
Myth #1: Eating Disorders are a lifestyle choice or about vanity
The association between body dissatisfaction and eating disorders can sometimes lead people to mistakenly believe that eating disorders are prompted by vanity and represent a lifestyle choice to attain body ideals.
Eating disorders are serious and potentially life threatening mental illnesses; they are not a lifestyle choice or a diet gone ‘too far’. A person with an eating disorder experiences severe disturbances in their behaviour around eating, exercising and related self-harm because of distortions in their thoughts and emotions. Eating disorders defy classification solely as mental illnesses as they not only involve considerable psychological impairment and distress, but they are also associated with major wide-ranging and serious medical complications, which can affect every major organ in the body. The mortality rate for people with eating disorders is the highest of all psychiatric illnesses, and over 12 times higher than that for people without eating disorders.
Eating disorders result from multiple factors and are not caused by any one factor. While body image concerns play a role in the development of an eating disorder for many people, for some people the development of an eating disorder is not related to a desire to meet social ideals.
Myth #2: Dieting is a normal part of life
Research shows that people recognise the potentially harmful nature of eating disorders, however they also accept body obsession and dieting as normal parts of growing up. Studies in Australia and New Zealand have found an alarming 75% of high school girls feel fat or want to lose weight.
While moderate, sustainable changes in diet and exercise have been shown to be safe, significant mental and physical consequences may occur with extreme or unhealthy dieting practices. Eating disorders almost invariably occur in people who have engaged in dieting or disordered eating. Dieting is also associated with other health concerns including depression, anxiety, nutritional and metabolic problems, and, contrary to expectation, with an increase in weight. Research shows that young people who diet moderately are six times more likely to develop an eating disorder; and those who are severe dieters have an 18-fold risk.
Myth #3: Eating Disorders are a cry for attention, or a person going through a ‘phase’
The NEDC Youth Consultation showed that 51.3% of 12-17 year olds strongly agreed or agreed that a person with an eating disorder should ‘snap out of it, there are more important things in life to worry about’. These types of misconceptions are not limited to the general public. A person with an eating disorder may receive similar reactions from some health professionals.
People with eating disorders are not seeking attention. In fact, due to the nature of an eating disorder a person may go to great lengths to hide, disguise or deny their behaviour, or may not recognise that there is anything wrong. Regardless of the age of a person at the time their eating disorder begins, there is often a considerable period of time between onset and treatment; an average of approximately 4 years between the start of disordered eating behaviours and first treatment. The person may also see a number of healthcare professionals before receiving a correct diagnosis.
Myth #4: Families, particularly parents, are to blame for Eating Disorders
There is a common, historic misconception that family members can cause eating disorders through their interactions with a person at risk. This misconception has been so pervasive that historically parents were treated by medical practitioners as one of the factors contributing to an eating disorder rather than one of the resources available to help a person with an eating disorder recover.
There is strong evidence that eating disorders have a genetic basis and people who have family members with an eating disorder may be at higher risk of developing an eating disorder themselves. However, although a person’s genetics may predispose them to developing an eating disorder this is certainly not the fault of their family. Genetics play a role in many illnesses; both mental (e.g. schizophrenia) and physical (e.g. breast cancer and heart disease). Family and friends play a crucial role in the care, support and recovery of people with eating disorders. Clinical guidelines for best practice in managing eating disorders encourage the inclusion of families at each stage of treatment for adolescents with eating disorders, from the initial assessment to providing recovery support.
Myth #5: Eating Disorders only affect white, middle class females, particularly adolescent girls
It is true that the peak period for the onset of eating disorders is between the ages of 12 and 25 years, with a median age of around 18 years. One key group with a high risk of eating disorders is women, particularly those going through key transition periods (e.g. from school to adult life, pregnancy and menopause). This high risk has led to a misconception that eating disorders only occur in this population.
Eating disorders can affect anyone. They occur:
- Across all cultural and socio-economic backgrounds
- Amongst people of all ages, from children to the elderly
- In both men and women
Population studies have suggested that males make up approximately 25% of people with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa and 40% of people with binge eating disorder. Eating disorders are not limited to any one group of people and the prevalence of eating disorders in specific high risk groups should not distract the community from the importance of recognising eating disorders in other populations.
– The NEDC
The NEDC have created a video to help spread the truth about eating disorders. View and share this video here.
The National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) is an initiative of Australian Government Department of Health and a collaboration of people and organisations with an expertise and/or interest in eating disorders. NEDC aims to improve the health outcomes of people with, or at risk of developing an eating disorder in Australia through providing evidence-based information and resources.