With the rise of anti-diet culture education and intuitive eating, we now have a greater understanding of how we’ve all been affected by the extreme nutrition messages of the past. Fad diets, rigid food rules, and harmfully low calorie plans have had a strong hold on us as a society for generations.
While eating disorders have a designated criteria for lab values, vital signs, or behavior patterns that make it more clear to diagnose, disordered eating is a bit ambiguous leading to a lot of myths about disordered eating that are accepted as truths. It could look like someone with a general fear of weight gain, someone stuck in a night time stress eating cycle, or someone suffering from huge amounts of guilt about their food choices. Many experts think of disordered eating on a spectrum: Some have more serious consequences than others.
No matter where someone falls on the spectrum, their quality of life and mental health is likely suffering. Folks who struggle with disordered eating should know that it is absolutely possible to heal their relationship with food and find a better balance—both mentally and physically.
Let’s dive into exactly which myths about disordered eating you need to stop believing, and hear the truth behind these food patterns that may be keeping you feeling stuck.
5 myths about disordered eating that aren’t true
Myth 1: Disordered eating has a stereotypical “look”
Many think that disordered eating only affects young, thin, white women, but that’s not true. In my practice, I work with women (and men, too!) of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds. I see young women from 12 years old all the way to women in their 70s and beyond. I work with men who find themselves stuck in a yo-yo dieting pattern that leaves them feeling stressed and enslaved to a meal plan. I treat folks from all different backgrounds and ethnicities who share similar struggles.
One thing this highlights is that no one is ever fully exempt from being at risk for disordered eating habits. No matter your history, diet culture and societal pressure to fit a certain beauty standard can mess with your perception of what you need to do to be healthy.
Kelsey Kunik, RDN, a nutrition advisor for Fin vs Fin, shares her own experience: “As a registered dietitian, I’ve seen various severities of disordered eating in people of every age, race, income level, and size. From an 85-year-old woman with chronic medical conditions who wouldn’t eat past a certain time of night because she didn’t want to gain weight to the young mom who wanted to improve her relationship with food and stop binging on sweets anytime they were around, anyone can be affected by disordered eating.”
Myth 2: You can tell when someone has disordered eating
Aside from there not being one “look” in folks with disordered eating, there is another reason why it is really hard to spot someone with these harmful behaviors: People who engage in these behaviors are really good at hiding it.
Folks with disordered eating often live with shame and guilt over their food choices. This amount of shame can keep someone very private. Often, when a new client reaches out for help, they have been struggling for years or even decades before they decided to seek support.
Disordered eating patterns are sneaky. To the untrained person, it may just appear that your friend or loved one is suddenly more concerned with their health, nutrition, or fitness routines. What you don’t see are the many ways in which they may begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed by this new lifestyle.
Myth 3: People with disordered eating are shallow
Because disordered eating is often centered around food and body image, many people wrongly assume that someone’s efforts are made out of vanity. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. People with disordered eating behaviors often learn that controlling their food, weight, or exercise routine may help them feel in control and cope with the stressors of life. In fact, going through a traumatic or stressful event is an increased risk factor for developing disordered eating behaviors.
After speaking with Caroline Young, MS, RD, LD, RYT, Owner of Whole Self Nutrition and fellow eating disorder dietitian, we both agreed that many people believe that disordered eating is shallow, even though that isn’t true. “A person usually develops disordered eating behaviors as a way to manage hard emotions and life experiences, such as major transitions like divorce, going to college or having a child. While it is not a healthy coping skill, disordered eating almost always serves an emotional purpose,” Young shares.
Myth 4: Disordered eating is harmless
We live in a culture that glorifies disordered eating. We applaud folks for their weight-loss efforts, skipping meals, eating as little as possible, or following a restrictive meal plan. We subtly and not-so-subtly reinforce that folks should engage in these restrictive behaviors. However, disordered eating can become more severe and eventually turn into an eating disorder.
“Since disordered eating is so normalized in our culture, behaviors like restricting carbohydrates, skipping meals or exercising to “earn” a certain meal are socially acceptable and not typically seen as dangerous. However, disordered eating can certainly snowball and turn into a full-blown, life-threatening eating disorder,” Young emphasizes.
Myth 5: You can manage disordered eating alone
If you’re struggling with disordered eating, it can be easy to compare yourself to folks with an eating disorder and feel like what you’re struggling with is “not that bad.“ However, if you’re feeling like your relationship with food is interfering with your ability to live your life, taking away from your relationships, or contributing to greater stress, you deserve support.