5 Myths about Eating Disorders

Motortion/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
Motortion/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

In the five years I have spent specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, I have encountered so much misinformation about what eating disorders are and what causes them.

It’s time to help set the record straight.

Myth #1: Eating disorders are a choice or lifestyle.

Eating disorders are not fads or a choice. They are a damaging mental illness that should be viewed and treated as such. Yes, many eating disorders may start as a desire for weight loss, but, for some individuals, an innocent diet can quickly turn into an unhealthy obsession. This requires appropriate treatment to address the complex medical and psychiatric symptoms, as well as treatment for the underlying cause.

Myth #2: People who are normal weight cannot have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Eating disorders are not always detectable simply from physical appearance. There is a range of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors; therefore, it is not appropriate to make an assumption based on an observation. It breaks my heart when clients tell me that they do not need or deserve treatment because they aren’t thin enough to have an eating disorder.

Myth #3: It’s just about food.

“Just eat!” may seem like an intuitive response to someone who refuses to eat. On the other hand, “Stop eating!” may seem like an appropriate response to someone who is bingeing. However, comments like these are extremely unhelpful and disregard the complexity of an eating disorder. While it is true that those suffering from eating disorders misuse food as a coping tool, food is not the core issue. The first step I take in treating any eating disorder is to teach my clients how to properly nourish the body. This allows my clients to have the resources to do the therapeutic work necessary to get to the root cause of their eating disorders.

Myth #4: Eating disorders are a “teen girl” disease or phase.

Eating disorders are not just “a phase.” They require medical and psychological treatment. Unfortunately, I have had clients seek medical attention from doctors who are not savvy about eating disorders and tell parents not to worry because their child will “grow out of this phase.” If left untreated, an eating disorder is a dangerous and deadly disease. Also, eating disorders do not discriminate and can affect anyone, regardless of sex, age, origin, weight, sexual orientation and socioeconomic background.

Myth #5: Pop culture causes eating disorders.

There is no single reason that someone develops an eating disorder. While it is true that there is an abundance of potentially triggering images and messages being portrayed in our current society, it is not the fundamental cause of eating disorders. Eating disorders occur due to a combination of genetics and environment. Many studies show that genetics contribute to predispositions for eating disorders. Other factors that may play a role include temperament, biology, trauma, dieting, deficits in coping skills deficits and family.


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Alixandra Fenton
Alixandra Fenton, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutrition who works with adults and adolescents with eating disorders. Her private practice is based in Lafayetta, Calif. Read her blog and connect with her on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn.