By Sarah Sarway
Eating disorders (or EDs for short) are much more prevalent than you might realize. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorder Association, a staggering 20 million women and 10 million men will develop one at some point in their lives.
And yet, the realm of eating disorders is a seriously misunderstood area of mental health.
Recently, Dr. Joy Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, health coach, and author who specializes in issues related to eating disorders, spoke at our annual Masterclass, where TNS grads got to hear from the pro IRL.
The myth-busting session was seriously eye-opening, so we decided to dig deeper with her into some of the most common misconceptions on the topic.
Understanding eating disorders, by the way, is even more important when you’re in the process (or business) of self-improvement. Even when well-meaning, making vows to eat totally clean or cut out all the sugar can sometimes spiral out-of-control and into unhealthy habits.
To prevent that from happening, get to know the real facts on EDs, below.
5 Eating Disorder Myths, Busted
Myth: You can tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their weight.
Truth: “Just because someone may ‘look’ like they have an eating disorder actually has nothing to do with whether or not they actually do,” explains Dr. Jacobs. Someone who appears to be maintaining a healthy weight is just as likely to have an ED as someone who may look under or overweight. “Weight is actually a very small factor.” There are so many more pieces of the puzzle–like stress, trauma and anxiety–that aren’t usually visible on the outside.
Myth: Only women having eating disorders.
Truth: A staggering 5 percent of the population has an ED; 10 percent of those suffering are men, and that statistic is rapidly growing. Before our culture became so diet-obsessed, Dr. Jacobs explains, men were more immune to the pressures that many women may have felt. These days, though, that has changed. “Now, men have significant demands on how they think they’re expected to look that they haven’t had in the past.” And it’s not just the adults who are trying to keep up with standards. Dr. Jacobs says that she has seen an uptick in male teenage athletes developing anorexia after adopting diets related to their sports. “Eating disorders don’t discriminate,” says Dr. Jacobs, explaining that men and women of all ages, races, sexual orientations, and cultural backgrounds are at risk.
Myth: Once you have an eating disorder, you’ll probably have it forever.
Truth: “Most people don’t get well on their own but can make complete recoveries through therapy or working with a health coach,” says Dr. Jacobs. (Registered dieticians and other health experts can also help.) In fact, many people do regain a healthy relationship with food and eating, as long as they’re fully committed to do so. Deciding you’re ready to make necessary changes is crucial to a successful recovery. “A lot of people are ambivalent about starting treatment because they fear they’ll start gaining weight if they switch up their unhealthy habits.” But making the decision that you’re ready and then establishing a solid support system will help.
Myth: There’s no such thing as being too healthy.
Truth: While kale smoothies and a yoga habit are important elements of a healthy lifestyle, nothing is more crucial than listening to your body. “People tend to take healthy eating to an extreme and can end up with serious vitamin and nutritional deficiencies,” says Dr. Jacobs, citing an eating disorder called orthorexia. While not officially recognized as an ED, orthorexia commonly develops from the pursuit of a “perfectly” healthy diet that winds up being too restrictive. This kind of mindset can carry over to the fitness end, too.
“A client of mine would exercise eight hours every day and sleep just two hours at night,” for example. While everyone around her would praise her willpower, Dr. Joy says her client’s body was totally compromised—her blood pressure was high, her vitals were low, and she was showing signs of osteoporosis. It’s important to consult with a trusted source—like a doctor, nutritionist or trainer—to make sure your health and fitness goals are realistic and safe. “What’s healthy in someone’s mind can actually be pretty unhealthy at the end of the day.”
Myth: Developing an eating disorder is a choice.
Truth: This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions out there. “Some people are actually genetically wired to be more susceptible than others,” says Dr. Jacobs. It’s not just about what’s going on in the outside world, or the inside, for that matter. “There is a strong genetic, biological component,” says Dr. Jacobs. The proof is in the statistics: dieting is a common precursor to the development of anorexia, she says, but only 5 percent of those who start a diet end up with an ED. “There’s usually a genetic predisposition going on, as well as some lifestyle factors like stress and trauma, that causes that 5 percent to develop an ED.”
Now that you’ve got the facts, if you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of an eating disorder, Dr. Jacobs suggests taking the time to do some research. “Head to the National Eating Disorders Association’s website, where you can get more information, find a reference for a trusted doctor to check on your health, and find a professional who specializes in treatment.”