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6 Eating Disorder Myths Debunked

02/27/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated Mar 03, 2015
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How much do you actually know about eating disorders? For National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, we've rounded up common misconceptions that make it more difficult for people living with these illnesses to be recognized, to be understood and to access appropriate treatment.

Here are six myths about eating disorders debunked.

MYTH: Eating disorders happen only to white women.

In reality, people of all genders and racial groups can suffer from disordered eating. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men today will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder in their lifetime. A 2007 survey showed no difference in eating disorder rates among people of different races and ethnicities, although NEDA has found that minorities are much less likely to receive help.

Because eating disorders are so commonly seen as a women's problem, men can also struggle to find recovery programs and helpful literature.

"My entire recovery (and likely, [that of] countless other males) was about fitting myself into a recovery culture mostly designed, tailored, and intended for females," wrote survivor and activist Matt Wetsel in a February 2015 blog post. "I even got turned away initially from the group therapy which played an integral role in my recovery –- the only one my school offered -– because I wasn’t a woman."

MYTH: Eating disorders happen only to young people.

A 2012 study found a high rate of eating disorders in women over 50.

"I think there is such pressure on older women to not look like they're becoming older," Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of an eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina, said in a CBS interview about the study. "Everything is about looking younger, trying to stay thin and attractive, whether that means surgery or cosmetics or whatever. The pressure to not age is so strong. That leads them down the path of unhealthy eating and diet behaviors."

MYTH: All those with eating disorders are skeletally thin.

"Someone with bulimia or binge-eating disorder, or an eating disorder unspecified, could be any weight," Dr. Edward Selby, an eating disorders specialist at Rutgers University, told The Huffington Post. "They could be underweight, normal weight, overweight or even obese. You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them."

Because sufferers might not "look" sick, they may be less likely to reach out for help or may be taken less seriously when they do.

MYTH: Anorexia and bulimia are the most common eating disorders.

According to Dr. Selby, the most common eating disorder is “other.” The formal term for that is EDNOS ("eating disorder not otherwise specified") -- or since the 2013 update of the standard diagnostic manual, OSFED (“other specified feeding or eating disorder”).

"That means they're having eating problems or weight and body image issues, but they don't fit the diagnosis for anorexia or bulimia," Selby said.

Because the symptoms and experiences of EDNOS vary so widely and because this "other" category receives much less coverage in the media, its sufferers may not even realize they have a problem.

MYTH: Eating disorders are a lifestyle choice.

"This is perhaps the most damaging myth that our patients have had to deal with," Dr. Bulik said during a Feb. 14 talk at the National Institute of Mental Health. "Eating disorders are illnesses, not choices."

The idea that eating disorders are a "choice" may make it difficult for sufferers to open up to family and friends for fear of being judged or told to "just eat."

MYTH: Eating disorders are caused by dysfunctional families.

"You'll hear the myth that it's the family's fault, but a lot goes into an eating disorder, including genetic, societal and cultural factors," Dr. Selby told HuffPost. "It can really tear up families, when the family is crucial to eating disorder recovery."

In its resources for parents and other family members on supporting a child or sibling with an eating disorder, NEDA encourages parents not to blame themselves.

Need help? Call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

This article has been updated to note that the term EDNOS, while still widespread, was replaced in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with the term OSFED.

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