The Real Truth About Eating Disorders

Myths, stereotypes, and misperceptions about who gets eating disorders.

Posted Feb 23, 2018

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 26-March 4), I’m addressing some of the common myths, stereotypes, and misperceptions about who gets eating disorders. Spoiler alert: It’s not just young, thin, white cis girls and women.

1. Eating disorders affect people across the weight spectrum.

Just because someone is at a higher weight doesn’t mean that they aren’t struggling. In fact, a recent study investigating atypical anorexia (a diagnosis for people who meet most criteria for anorexia nervosa except they are at a higher weight) found that eating disorder symptoms were more severe in this group than in people who met the full criteria for anorexia nervosa. Other studies show that people who are at higher weights tend to be at an increased risk for eating disorders, but are less likely to be diagnosed and receive treatment.

2. Boys and men get eating disorders too.

A 2014 study revealed that 31 percent of adolescent boys and young men reported eating disorder symptoms, and 18 percent reported extreme concern with weight and physique. Remember that eating disorders may look different in boys and men; their focus tends to be more about improving their appearance, gaining muscle, and gaining strength rather than losing weight and thinness.

3. The transgender community is at a higher risk for eating disorders.

A study of college students revealed that transgender students were nearly 5 times more likely to struggle with an eating disorder compared to cisgender, heterosexual women. Transgender students who were also unsure about their sexuality were at an even higher risk.

4. Low-income African-American and Hispanic adolescents and adults have an increased risk of eating disorders.

One study revealed that 15 percent of low-income (average family income of $17,000) Hispanic and African-American adolescents report an eating disorder (compared with 3 percent, the national average). Another study found that 17 percent of severely food-insecure Hispanic individuals (families in which there was not always enough food to even feed the children) reported clinically significant eating disorder symptoms.

5. All people deserve treatment.

Many people who don’t “look like they have an eating disorder” based on their weight, gender, or skin color are not identified as having an eating disorder by medical professionals. Delayed or missed diagnoses means missed opportunities for treatment and poorer outcomes. We need to find ways to make treatment accessible for all people struggling with an eating disorder — and that starts with changing our stereotypes about what someone with an eating disorder looks like.

Alexis Conason is a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of psychological issues related to bariatric surgery, overeating disorders, body image dissatisfaction, and sexual issues. She is the founder of The Anti-Diet Plan, a mindfulness based program to help you stop dieting and start eating in attunement with your body. 

Facebook image: George Rudy/Shutterstock