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NEDA Week: It's Time to Talk About Eating Disorder Myths and Facts

It’s Time to Talk About It!

Yesterday, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week began. The theme for this year is: it’s time to talk about eating disorders and do one thing to raise awareness. Here are the details, according to NEDA:

We live in a culture saturated with unrealistic body-image messages and almost all of us know somebody struggling with an eating disorder. Because this is true, we urge you to talk about it……and do just one thing during NEDAwareness Week to 1) raise awareness that eating disorders are serious illnesses, not lifestyle choices; 2) provide accurate information to medical, educational and/or business communities, and 3) direct people to information and resources about eating disorders.

Here are other ways you can participate in NEDA week, according to the organization:

  • Bring a NEDAwareness Week volunteer speaker to your school, work or social group.
  • Provide accurate information: Put NEDAwareness Week posters, pamphlets and informational handouts in your schools, community centers, medical offices or workplaces.
  • Be a Media Watchdog. Write one letter in praise of an ad promoting positive body-image or in protest of an ad promoting negative body-image.
  • Donate the GO GIRLS! Curriculum to a local high school: Empower youth to become critical media viewers.
  • Maximize the power of your social networking sites: Re-tweet a fact about eating disorders, put up a link to the NEDA website and Helpline, encourage your contacts to learn more about eating disorders and join you in doing just one thing.

Eating Disorder Myths

In honor of NEDA’s theme, let’s talk about eating disorder myths and facts. There are many misconceptions surrounding eating disorders. I’ve asked several clinicians to share a few myths and facts.

Myth: Eating disorders are all about control. (Carolyn Jones, RN, MS, LPC, of  the Eating Recover Center & clinical psychologist Sarah Ravin, Ph.D)

Fact: According to Jones, “Eating disorders are complex and have bio/psycho/social/spiritual components in the origin and maintenance of the disease. In fact, when a person feels they are exerting control via their eating disorder, they are really NOT in control as the disease has taken over their life and they cannot interrupt these behaviors without assistance.”

Says Dr. Ravin, “I don’t even know what this really means. EDs are not ‘about’ anything other than being born with a certain genetic / biological predisposition and certain personality traits, and then experiencing malnutrition (usually through dieting). People with EDs often have ‘control issues,’ such as being rigid and overcontrolled (anorexia), or impulsive and undercontrolled (bulimia and binge eating disorder), but these ‘control issues’ are manifestations of the underlying temperament that predisposes people to EDs. Correlation rather than causation is operating here.  When people are suffering from EDs, they are not in control of their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors related to food and weight. And there is no empirical evidence to suggest that EDs are caused by feeling ‘out of control’ of one’s life.”

Myth: Eating disorders are caused by some type of unresolved psychological issue. (Dr. Ravin)

Fact: There is no empirical evidence supporting this claim. Granted, most people with EDs do have major psychological issues (depression, perfectionism, low self-esteem, body dysmorphia, anxiety, etc.) which co-occur with the ED, but correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Myth: Media is the primary cause for the development of most eating disorders. (Julie Holland, MHS, CEDS, Eating Recovery Center)

Fact: Although recent surveys have confirmed that adolescent girls get much of their health information from the media, media messages themselves are not a primary cause of eating disorders. Messages that promote an unrealistic thin ideal can set unrealistic standards regarding body size and shape. The fact is, media messages have the ability to positively or negatively affect one’s body image and/or self-image based on the message and how it is presented. It is important that we teach individuals critical thinking when looking at media images.

Myth: Eating disorders are triggered by a desire to be thin. (Emmett R. Bishop, Jr., MD, CEDS, Eating Recovery Center)

Fact: Eating disorder behaviors do not develop merely because an individual has a longing to be thin. For instance, an individual who does not know that he or she has wheat or lactose intolerance may develop a fear of food due to the discomfort or pain it causes. Someone in chemotherapy or with a gastrointestinal disorder may stop eating to avoid nausea.

Myth: Eating disorders are a choice. (Julie Holland)

Fact: Although individuals may choose to start a diet or engage in a certain behaviors, eating disorders themselves are not a choice. People do not choose to have anorexia or bulimia. These disorders develop over a period of time and require various levels of treatment to address complex symptoms including medical, psychiatric and other underlying issues.

Myth: You can tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. (Marla Scanzello, MS, RD, Eating Recovery Center)

Fact: Many people with eating disorders are of normal weight, or even overweight. Weight is not a tell-all sign of an eating disorder. Furthermore, eating disorder patients can become quite skilled at hiding their disordered eating behaviors.

Myth: People with eating disorders will eat normally / recover when they choose to do so. (Dr. Ravin)

Fact: This myth implies that EDs are willful behavior and that a patient can simply make a choice to recover. Thus, it blames people with EDs for having an illness that is not their fault.  Most people with EDs are not able to eat normally on their own; they require significant outside support (nutritionist, parental support in refeeding, residential tx, etc.) in order to normalize their eating habits.

Myth: Developing a positive body image is not that important in the overall recovery from an eating disorder and should be worked on towards the end of the recovery process. (Carolyn Jones)

Fact: A continued negative body image is one of the main contributing factors to a relapse in the eating recovery process. Improving a person’s body image is one of the hardest and most time-consuming things to change in the healing process and should be undertaken early during treatment.

Myth: Eating disorders are not deadly. (Kenneth L. Weiner, MD, CEDS, Eating Recovery Center)

Fact: In all actuality, it is quite the opposite. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness. A woman with anorexia nervosa is 5.6 times more likely to die than another woman of her same age. The most frequent causes of death from eating disorders are suicide (32 percent), complications associated with anorexia (19 percent), and cancer (11 percent). The average age of death for an individual with anorexia is only 34 years.

Myth: You can never fully recover from an eating disorder. (Julie Holland & Sarah Ravin)

Fact: According to Holland, “Recovery takes commitment, dedication, hard work and time. However, full recovery is absolutely possible through finding the appropriate treatment professionals and program.”

According to Dr. Ravin, “The people who believe this are probably those who did not receive treatment, received inadequate or low-quality treatment, lacked the necessary social support, or were never pushed to reach and maintain an ideal body weight and stay there long enough for brain healing to occur.The underlying biological predisposition will always be there, but people can and do recover fully from EDs.  I’ve seen it happen many times.”

Myths from Women Who’ve Been There

As many of you know, I regularly feature Q&As with women who’ve struggled and recovered from eating disorders. One of the questions I ask is about eating disorder misconceptions, particularly how they’re portrayed in the media. I’ve rounded up a few of the myths from these interviews:

From Sarah,

That people with ED are selfish. Often, they are excessively empathetic. That the mother/family is to blame, maybe or maybe not, but the individual is important too. That you can’t recover. You can. That weight rather than the eating patterns are important. I’ve seen normal-weight bulimics in MUCH worse physical conditions than anorexics.

From Kate Thieda,

If you ask the freshmen at the university where I now go to school, they would tell you that eating disorders are fueled by the media—their portrayals of skinny women “having it all.” That may be a piece of it, but that’s not the whole story. No person in this country is insulated from the media, but not every person develops an eating disorder. The person who develops an eating disorder has other issues going on psychologically. The food and exercise behaviors are attempts to manage the deeper pain inside.

Another misconception is that eating disorders can be resolved without professional help. There are tons of self-help books, websites and other materials out there, but again, because eating disorders are a symptom of an underlying psychological issue, people need to work with professionals to uncover the deeper problems and work through those.

From Kate Le Page,

The media often portrays anorexia as being glamorous or something that is almost fashionable or a lifestyle rather than a disease. Also, many television programs dealing with eating disorders show someone becoming ill and then going into the hospital and magically, upon being discharged, is then portrayed as being 100 percent cured!

By writing about being in the hospital, I wanted to show that there is nothing remotely glamorous about spending months fighting a life-threatening condition.

Another key misconception is that a person is recovered when they look ‘normal’ and are at target weight. Actually, as every sufferer knows, this is only the beginning of recovery. As Katharine Wealthall eloquently describes it in her book Little Steps, “If treating anorexia is like reading a big book, then target weight is just the introduction.” I still cringe when someone says you look well, as how can you see a disease that is predominantly mental just by looking at my appearance?! Also, it is important to recognize that a person can be seriously malnourished by vomiting/over-exercising whilst still eating a ‘normal’ diet.

From Becky Oot,

*That it isn’t a valid medical condition. I’m infuriated when I see insurance companies refusing to cover treatment for eating disorders.

* People who have eating disorders are always skinny. Not true. There are so many kinds of eating disorders that it is almost impossible to diagnose a person just by looking at them.

*Eating disorders are about food. Again, not true. The eating disorder is just a symptom of much deeper, complex issues.

From Kendra Sebellius,

There is often a lot of media about anorexia and bulimia, but the majority of people who struggle with eating disorders do not fit nicely into these DSM boxes. A majority of people fit in the EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) and BED (binge eating disorder) descriptions. Since I am an advocate I read a lot of articles, and search daily for ones to post on my Voice in Recovery Facebook page.

I think eating disorders do get a lot of great press. I do worry more about trash media articles, because often the articles sound cliché, and make it sound like eating disorders are a willpower issue and not a complicated biological, chemical, cultural, environmental disorder. Some articles make it sound like people choose to have an eating disorder. I know a lot of the pro-ana websites say it is a lifestyle – which is absolutely untrue and dangerous.

I think there’s also a lot of media attention on those who struggle with eating disorders, and a lot of people sharing their story of their struggle, but often I wish there would be more news on recovery. I personally felt lost in recovery because I had no idea what recovery meant, what it looked like, what the experience was like, what the struggles were, etc.

This is the reason I started being an advocate – to learn and share what recovery looks like. I wish there were more books focusing on recovery, and how to handle struggles in recovery. I think if I had found a community online focused on recovery, it would have helped me immensely. This is why I love doing my Voice in Recovery advocacy, and being part of the MentorConnect program. I think AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) is great because you have a sponsor, and I love how MentorConnect has this ability for those who struggle, to be able to have a mentor to share the struggles with.

I do worry about the media’s representation of eating disorders. I have seen TV shows that show ED behaviors and then never address them as serious issues. I worry that because dieting is running rampant in this country by a multi-billion dollar industry, that parents will see dieting as a girl’s “right of passage.” I worry people will start dieting and end up with eating disorders. I believe the diet industry is a very damaging, powerful industry.

I watch the media, and the news, and am grateful there is so much eating disorder awareness. I think it is a daily worry though, that clichés and misconceptions are thrown into media articles. This can make it harder for those who really struggle, and the loved ones trying to help.

From Michelle Myers,

People think it’s just about food. Recovery should be simple – just EAT! But it’s not that simple, and it’s not just about food. There are a plethora of life experiences that add up to disordered eating, and those issues must rise to the surface in order to experience recovery.

I think another misconception is that eating disorders never fully go away, and once you have one, you will always struggle with it. I believe that is only true if you only address the physical side of the disorder. However, the deeper issues behind an eating disorder are emotional, mental and spiritual. If you achieve peace in those areas, I believe full recovery is possible.

What eating disorder myth would you add to the list? What are your thoughts on the above myths? How will you spread the word about eating disorders?

And…A Great Giveaway

I’m thrilled to be giving away a few copies of some fantastic books. I have one copy of Beating Ana: How to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder & Take Your Life Back, written by Shannon Cutts, and two copies of 100 Questions and Answers About Anorexia Nervosa by eating disorder specialist Sari Shepphird, Ph.D. I highly recommend these books, and I’m so thankful to both women for providing these copies.

To be eligible to win a copy, just respond to this week’s posts. The winners will be randomly chosen this Sunday using The last day to leave a comment will be Sunday at 12 p.m. EST.

Stayed tuned tomorrow when eating disorder survivor and advocate Andrea Roe shares her story!

Update: Check out parts one and two of Andrea’s interview on her recovery. Also, Andrea has generously offered to give away a copy of her book, You Are Not Alone, which comes with a CD by Shannon Cutts. Same rules apply as above.

2nd Update: Here are the last two posts for NEDA Week:

Men, Eating Disorders and Patrick Bergstorm from I Chose to Live

When An Eating Disorder Starts in Young Adulthood: Kate’s Story

NEDA Week: It's Time to Talk About Eating Disorder Myths and Facts

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). NEDA Week: It's Time to Talk About Eating Disorder Myths and Facts. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Feb 2010
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