Eating disorders are perpetually in the news. Yet despite the media blitz, friends and family members of people with anorexia and bulimia are often misled by common myths about the conditions - the causes, the warning signs, and the best way to get help.
Nine myths are especially common - and potentially deadly, says University of Michigan eating disorder specialist Dr. David S. Rosen. Read on to find out what they are...
Myth: Skinny Models Are the Problem
What causes eating disorders? Skinny models certainly get lots of blame. But while images of dangerously thin women in the media play a role in promoting anorexia, they're just one of many factors - and probably not the most important one.
Dr. Rosen says heredity plays a key role. "Scientists have discovered that the genetics of eating disorders are pretty similar to the genetics of depression, schizophrenia, and other psychological disorders," he says. And eating disorders seem to go hand in hand with personality traits like anxiety and extreme rigidity.
Myth: Disordered Eating Is Rare
Only about 0.5 percent of the population have anorexia, and 1 percent to 2 percent have bulimia, says Dr. Rosen. So yes, the disorders are rare. But that's only because the criteria doctors use to diagnose the disorders are so strict.
Many more people - perhaps up to one in 10 - have anorexia-like and bulimia-like problems that don't quite meet the criteria for either disorder. And since these conditions can cause big problems, they shouldn't be dismissed, says Dr. Rosen.
Myth: Eating Disorders Affect Only Women
Not long ago, doctors thought eating disorders were essentially a female problem. In fact, anorexia and bulimia seemed to be a threat mostly to highly intelligent young white females from an affluent background. Now it's clear that eating disorders are an "equal opportunity" illness, says Dr. Rosen. They're showing up in children (including boys), older women, men, people of color, and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Myth: Anorexia Is All about Starvation
Though extreme thinness and self-starvation are common in women with anorexia, they're not "essential ingredients" of the disorder. Anorexia is really all about having a distorted body image, Dr. Rosen says. So just because someone isn't skeletal doesn't mean he/she doesn't have anorexia. For example, a woman who had been overweight may now be of normal weight - and still have anorexia.
Myth: Bulimia Means Vomiting
In an effort to get rid of excess calories, many women with bulimia vomit after bingeing. But some women exercise compulsively to get rid of the excess calories, and others use laxatives. The core element of bulimia is out-of-control eating and taking steps to avoid weight gain.
Myth: Normal Weight? No Problem
Eating disorders can lead to a range of medical problems beyond extreme thinness. Some young people stop growing. Some young women stop having their periods. But the time to intervene is not when those symptoms become apparent, but when the person first starts focusing on their weight, what they eat, and how much they exercise.
The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome, says Dr. Rosen.
Myth: Dieting Doesn't Pose a Risk
Dieting is now recognized as a primary risk factor for eating disorders. Instead of dieting, it's better to focus on healthy eating and physical activity. If weight is a concern for someone you love, the problem should be discussed in a way that doesn't threaten his/her self-esteem, says Dr. Rosen.
Myth: Eating Disorders Aren't Deadly
Anorexia claims the lives of five percent to 10 percent of those who suffer from it, Dr. Rosen says. Some anorexics commit suicide. Others succumb to heart problems or other complications of the disorder.
Myth: Eating Disorders Should Be Hushed Up
With proper treatment, most people suffering from an eating disorder recover. But because eating disorders are notoriously difficult to treat, it's best to enlist the help of a team of experts, including doctors, mental health practitioners, and nutrition specialists. Keeping a friend's or loved one's eating disorder "all in the family" could prove deadly.