Eating disorders are not a single disorder, but a group of related disorders that involve unhealthy relationships with food and a negative body image. Although there is more awareness of eating disorders, there are many misconceptions that can prevent you from acknowledging there is a problem, or recognizing a disorder in someone else.
Eating Disorders Are Obvious
In many cases, it is much easier to assume that a person has an eating disorder if they are unusually thin, but this is not always true. Some people are naturally quite thin and do not have unhealthy relationships with food. Furthermore, you can be of average weight or overweight and have an eating disorder, which often makes the problem easier to hide from those around you.
Anorexia is typically associated with people who drop a significant amount of weight and become alarmingly thin. However, many people with bulimia never reach the point of being unhealthily thin, and maintain a healthy weight through unhealthy practices, such as purging. An often overlooked eating disorder is binge eating disorder, which can occur in people of any weight. When people who are overweight have binge eating disorder, it is often looked at as a problem of willpower rather than a genuine disorder.
Men Don't Have Eating Disorders
Although eating disorders disproportionately affect girls and women, boys and men are not immune to all forms of eating disorders. Males can experience the same obsessions with their weight or uncontrollable binges of food. Another form of eating disorder that is more commonly seen in males than females is the obsession with gaining muscle mass. If you are obsessed with gaining muscle, you may be extremely restrictive of your diet and meticulously count calories and protein.
Much like a person who has anorexia may exercise to the point of exhaustion and weight themselves multiple times per day to see if they are losing weight, a person who is unusually focused on building muscle may spend excessive amounts of time lifting weights and weighing themselves to see if they are gaining mass.
Only Young Women Have Eating Disorders
You may think that eating disorders only affect females who are teenagers or young adults, but this is far from the truth. Many young girls and women who experienced eating disorders continue to experience the same destructive patterns of thought and behavior throughout their life. Even with successful treatment, they may find that staying healthy is a constant struggle.
Adult women who never had an eating disorder may suddenly develop problematic behaviors even into old age. In many cases, eating disorders later in life can be attributed to traumatic or stressful life events, or many of the criticisms that women face as they age. For example, some women may become extremely self-critical of their appearance after a divorce, especially if their partner cheated with someone who was younger or thinner.
Eating disorders that are the result of traumatic events, such as sexual assault, can also happen later in life. The obsession with an overly restrictive diet can provide an element of control in the life of a person who had no control during an attack. In contrast, binge eating may be used as a method of dealing with emotions related to the trauma, or in hopes of gaining weight and being viewed as less desirable to potentially avoid another attack. In many cases, the events or self-critical behavior that precipitate eating disorders at younger ages are the same or similar to the underlying cause of eating disorders later in life.
Eliminating many of the misconceptions that are associated with eating disorders can foster a better understanding of all types of eating disorders. Furthermore, more people can recognize unhealthy behaviors once they realize there is no specific group of people that are immune to any type of eating disorder.