These are the most common misconceptions about eating disorders, according to an expert 1 week ago

These are the most common misconceptions about eating disorders, according to an expert

This story originally appeared as part of Her's Mental Health Month series in 2018.

In Ireland, an estimated 188,895 people will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Conditions like anorexia and bulimia are often referenced in the media and pop culture, and yet, many myths and misconceptions still exist around the conditions that affect so many people each year.

Bodywhys' Barry Murphy says that one of the most common myths about eating disorders (EDs) is why a person might develop one.

"They're extremely debilitating," he says, "but at their heart, eating disorders are not about food."

"They’re complex, they're a mental illness, and a need to control. They don’t just impact a person’s weight, but their quality of life and their physical and mental health - as well as the lives of that person’s family.

“It’s not about vanity or attention seeking. The conditions are complex, and they're multilayered.”

While a person's distress might manifest itself in a focus on food, this is not the primary reason for their disorder.

Rather, eating disorders are destructive coping mechanisms that often involve rituals and compulsive actions, meaning that trying to break the cycle of disordered eating is extremely difficult and usually met with internal resistance.

A way of eating becomes an eating disorder when the compulsions - such as bingeing, constant exercising, or purging - become a necessity to avoid feelings of panic and anxiety.

In turn, this necessity then becomes a fear of losing control, often making it more difficult for a person to recover.

Murphy says that another common myth focuses on the people who can experience an eating disorder.

Although a considerable higher number of women and girls are diagnosed with eating disorders (it's estimated that 1.2 percent of Irish girls are at risk of developing anorexia nervosa over the course of their lives, with 2 percent at risk of developing bulimia nervosa), this does not mean that only one group of people can develop an ED.

According to Murphy, one of the reasons why a lot of people hold off on getting support is because they're afraid they "don't fit the stereotype of someone who has an eating disorder."

“They’ll think ‘I’m not a teenager’ or ‘I’m not a woman, this is a female issue, so I mustn’t be affected’," he explains.

"People mistakenly think an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice, or a diet gone wrong. They’re aware of this and they hold back on getting professional help. They don’t have the confidence, or they feel they won’t be taken seriously."

In 2017, Bodywhys saw a 43 percent increase in people between the age of 36 and 55 contacting the organisation for help. There was also a 128 percent increase in the number of men attending ED support groups.

Similarly, a 2013 Headstrong/Jigsaw study showed that while over half of young women had fears of being overweight, one quarter of young men also felt the same.

Murphy says that rather than targeting a specific group, eating disorders simply tend to develop where there is more internalised pressure.

This pressure is then wrongly conflated with how a person looks and in turn linked to their success.

“Traditionally, women have been under more scrutiny in society and faced more cultural pressures over how they look," he says.

“Such a focus on appearance and body image creates expectations. You want to be a certain way or look a certain way to be seen as normal.

"Sometimes, the messages put out by society and the media aren’t very positive. They’re conflicting and distorted, and people pick up on those."

If you have been affected by any of the details of this article, you can contact Bodywhys on 1890 200 444 or email alex@bodywhys.ie.