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Busting Myths and Presenting Facts About Eating Disorders

Busting Myths
Busting Myths
Beth Blodgett Salafia, Ph.D., Assistant Professor; Maegan Jones, B.A., Graduate Student;Tara Zolnikov, M.S., Sc.M., Graduate Student; Alison Brennan, B.A., Graduate Student Department of Human Development and Family Science, NDSU

Myth: Talking to children about eating disorders will cause them to have one.

Fact: Having open lines of communication between parents and children is important. Researchers have found no evidence to suggest that defining eating disorders and having a discussion about them will cause the actual development of an eating disorder.

On the contrary, discussions help keep individuals informed and better able to recognize potential signs of eating disorders in friends and relatives. We recommend using the media (TV shows, news articles, etc.) as a conversation piece to discuss eating disorders.

Myth: Teasing children about food and weight is not harmful.

Fact: Parents never should engage in weight, appearance or food-related teasing. Any reinforcement and attention given to appearance, especially in the form of teasing, draws attention to an individual’s body and encourages social comparison with others based on physical attributes.

Even though the teaser may view this as harmless, children who are teased have increased rates of body dissatisfaction, dieting behaviors and eating disorders. Siblings are the most active teasers in the family; thus, parents should not only avoid engaging in teasing but attempt to stop siblings from teasing.

Myth: Anorexia is the only type of eating disorder.

Fact: Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified. Anorexia nervosa involves restriction, bulimia nervosa involves bingeing and purging, and binge eating disorder involves bingeing without purging. Eating disorder not otherwise specified, which often has characteristics of the other disorders, is the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder. A simple definition of an eating disorder is a definite disturbance of eating habits or weight-control behavior.

Myth: Only white, middle- to upper-class girls have eating disorders.

Fact: Eating disorders affect people of all genders, races, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. Researchers have found no differences in the prevalence of anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder across races and ethnicities, and Latino and African American individuals are more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa than non-Hispanic whites.

Males with anorexia and bulimia nervosa account for approximately 10 to 25 percent of people with either condition, and for binge eating disorder, they account for approximately 25 to 40 percent.

Myth: All people with eating disorders are skinny.

Fact: Typically, individuals with anorexia nervosa are extremely thin, having lost a substantial portion of their body weight. However, individuals with bulimia nervosa often maintain a normal weight, and individuals with binge eating disorder are often overweight. Do not “judge a book by its cover” but instead watch closely for changes in eating behavior.

Myth: Eating disorders are just a phase. Thus, they are easy to stop and treat.

Fact: Eating disorders are serious illnesses, not a choice. Just like physical ailments, eating disorders require extensive treatment. If individuals with eating disorders do not seek treatment, they are at risk for developing serious health problems, such as kidney failure, heart failure, brain damage, osteoporosis and perhaps even death.

The effectiveness of a treatment depends on the person involved. A multidimensional treatment approach is very important and can include information and education, hospitalization, comprehensive refeeding programs, cognitive-behavioral therapies and family therapy.

Myth: BMI (body mass index) is an accurate method of determining if someone is healthy.

Fact: BMI is a largely inaccurate measure of body fat and overall health. It ignores multiple important factors such as body type, bone density and muscle mass. According to BMI, many professional athletes are considered overweight due to their muscle mass.

Every body is different, and healthiness should be determined on a person-to-person basis. For instance, a recent trend on social media sites has been a desire among females for a thigh gap, or a clear space between the thighs. However, only a very specific body type has this gap naturally, and for most to achieve it, they would have to starve their body to the point that it began to break down muscle for energy.

Myth: People with eating disorders just do not understand nutrition.

Fact: The majority of those who suffer from eating disorders have a very good grasp of proper nutrition; for them, food, calories and eating become an obsession. However, what is important to remember is that eating disorders are not just about food but often are indicative of deeper problems, such as psychological distress or a need to feel control. Eating disorders also can have multiple causes completely unrelated to food, such as genetics.

Myth: Online resources, such as eating disorder support groups, are always useful.

Fact: While some websites do provide accurate information and healthful advice about dieting, exercise and weight loss, some websites can be classified as “Pro-Ana” (short for pro-anorexia) or “Pro-Mia” (short for pro-bulimia). Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and Pro-ED (pro-eating disorder) websites promote extreme weight loss ideals and unhealthy behaviors. You must be careful about what websites you turn to for information and what websites children view.

Pro-ED sites can have a number of “give away” characteristics, including: emphasis on extreme techniques such as fasting, diet pills or purging; glorified images of emaciated models or celebrities; and representation of eating disorders as a lifestyle choice rather than a serious illness. For accurate information on eating disorders, we recommend these reputable websites:

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