03/03/2014 03:18 pm ET Updated May 02, 2014

5 Myths About Eating Disorders

By Katie Parsons for

It is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. In the U.S. alone, 30 million people will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lifetimes. In keeping with the "awareness" portion of the week, here are a few common misconceptions about eating disorders and the real truths behind them.

Myth #1: Eating disorders are only an issue for teenagers and college students.

Cynthia Bulik Ph.D., FAED is the Director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and she hears this erroneous thinking often.

"This is wrong, eating disorders do not care how old you are. We are seeing more and more eating disorders in young children before puberty and in adults in midlife," she said. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 42 percent of first-graders want to be thinner.

Myth #2: Anorexia and bulimia are the main types of eating disorders.

Though anorexia has the highest morbidity rate of any mental illness, neither it, nor bulimia, are the most prevalent eating disorders.

"Actually the most common is binge eating disorder and it is characterized by binge eating -- or eating an unusually large amount of food in a discreet period of time and feeling out of control -- but with the absence of the purging behavior that we see in bulimia nervosa," said Dr. Bulik.

"Another one that we see is purging disorder, which is the purging behavior in the absence of binge eating."

Myth #3: Eating disorders are "women-centric" problems.

Men are also susceptible to eating disorders -- and in big numbers. NEDA reports that 10 million American men will face a "clinically significant" eating disorder at some point in their lifetimes and 33 percent of adolescent males use unhealthy weight control behaviors.

Myth #4: Eating disorders are for the wealthy and white.

"Eating disorders don't care how much money you make," said Dr. Bulik. "Eating disorders are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors." In other words, having more money does not make you more or less prone to an eating disorder. Ethnicity does not make you more or less apt to develop an unhealthy attitude towards food and body image either. People from all walks of life can be impacted.

"Eating disorders are color blind," she said.

Myth #5: Eating disorders are choices.

Dr. Bulik emphasizes that people do not blame patients or their parents for diseases like cancer and so they shouldn't for eating disorders either.

"This is wrong. Eating disorders are illnesses, not choices," said Dr. Bulik.

While public awareness continues to improve, Dr. Bulik says she still sees some old ways of thinking about eating disorders that alarm her.

"The problem is that it is harder for people to unlearn than to learn so it takes a very concerted effort to get new knowledge out into the public and to erase old erroneous knowledge," she said. "But that is what we have to do."

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