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5 Misconceptions About Eating Disorders

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February 1 to 7 is eating disorder awareness week this year. Most people are already aware that they exist, but unfortunately many myths and misconceptions about eating disorders still persist.

Eating disorders are more than just "extreme dieting," they are psychological disorders that stem from complex underlying issues. There are many stereotypes and myths surrounding eating disorders, and the resulting stigma can make it more difficult for those affected to seek treatment.

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) advocates that "eating disorders are as diverse as the people they affect." To help spread awareness and reduce the stigma, here are a few common misconceptions about eating disorders.

If you are suffering from an eating disorder or have any related concerns, it is important to talk to a health professional who specializes in eating disorders such as a doctor, a registered dietitian or a counselor.

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Myth: "Eating disorders only affect women."

Fact: Although eating disorders are more common in women than men, men are not immune to them. According to Statistics Canada (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-619-m/2012004/sections/sectiond-eng.htm), eating disorders are 10 times more likely to occur in women than in men, and it is more common for men to suffer from a binge eating disorder than anorexia or bulimia. Nevertheless, any eating disorder can affect any gender.

Myth: "You can tell whether or not someone has an eating disorder by the way they look."

Fact: The media often portrays people with eating disorders as skeletal and emaciated, but the truth is that people with eating disorders can be any size. Additionally, not all eating disorders result in weight loss, as with binge eating disorder (compulsive overeating).

Just because a person looks very thin does not mean he or she has an eating disorder, and just because a person may appear healthy on the outside does not mean he or she cannot be suffering internally. Whether someone is overweight, at a healthy weight or underweight is irrelevant, because eating disorders cannot be diagnosed solely based on a person's weight.

Myth: "Eating disorders are a choice."

Fact: Eating disorders are not a choice. Eating disorders are far more complicated than just a desire for structure and control. When a person has an eating disorder, his or her eating behaviour is out of control and severely disturbed.

No one chooses to have an eating disorder, and it stems from underlying psychological issues. Recovery requires one to make the conscious choice to change, usually by seeking proper treatment.

Myth: "Naturally slim people don't become anorexic or bulimic."

Fact: Anyone of any weight can develop an eating disorder. People who already have a low BMI can still develop an obsession with weight loss. Body dysmorphia -- the psychological disorder in which a person has very distorted body image and becomes preoccupied with imaginary imperfections in his or her physical appearance -- can affect anyone of any size.

The way someone perceives his or her physical appearance may be distorted by his or her mind and can be very different from what others see. This is why someone may think he or she is fat, when in reality it is all in his or her head. Such body image issues are usually the root cause of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Myth: "A person has recovered from an eating disorder when he or she attains a healthy weight."

Fact: Eating disorders are much more complex than simply under eating or overeating, and they usually indicate that a deeper issue. These are psychological disorders and must be treated as such. Proper treatment requires addressing the underlying issues, which may be body image problems or stress. Some people rely on food to distract themselves from more significant issues in their lives, so it is important to address the bigger picture and not only focus on food and weight.

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Co-written by Nisha Parker

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