February is Eating Disorders Awareness Month and an opportune time to discuss some of the misconceptions surrounding eating disorders. Providing accurate information regarding the various segments of the population that are most susceptible, identifying causes, and explaining the importance of recognizing warning signs can help us to bring greater awareness to this mental health issue.
Leigh Cohn, President of N.A.M.E.D. (National Association of Males with Eating Disorders) works to help bring awareness specifically to help men with eating disorders. I personally interviewed Cohn to gain a better understanding about the misconceptions associated with eating disorders and how they can be dispelled.
Misconception No. 1
Eating disorders are only a female adolescent issue.
Many people (I was one of them) tend to associate eating disorders with teenage girls and young women, but statistics show this is not the case. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), 24 million men and women of every age group in the U.S. are affected. Different disorders are more likely to affect different segments of the population. For example, while women are in fact more likely than men to develop an eating disorder, it is estimated that 10 percent to 15 percent of those with bulimia or anorexia are male. In fact, body dysmorphic disorder affects more men than women.
Misconception No. 2
The portrayal of women in the media causes them to develop eating disorders for superficial reasons.
Cohn acknowledges there are several factors that contribute to disordered eating and body issues in both men and women, such as genetics, family background, peer pressure or trauma.
Further, he argues that men face as much media pressure — if not more — than women.
“For both sexes, there are a variety of reasons for developing eating disorders, including the media,” Cohn says. In some cases, Cohn argues, men are more objectified than women. These media images can be found in a variety of sources — from movies like “Magic Mike” to advertising campaigns from retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch.
Misconception No. 3:
Eating disorders don’t affect health-conscious people.
Ironically, health-conscious individuals, especially those who train repetitiously and participate in regimented physical activities, seem to be more susceptible than the general population.
Cohn points out that body builders, for instance, are more likely to become obsessed with developing muscles and losing body fat. As a result, they can develop fanatical workout habits, strict diets and may even take steroids. Male and female athletes in such sports as skating, ballet and gymnastics also show a prevalence for developing eating disorders, according to Cohn.
Misconception No. 4
Eating disorders are not life threatening.
This could not be further from the truth. In fact, out of all the mental health disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. However, the numbers are not concrete because individuals typically die from a heart attack, organ failure, suicide or some other fatal condition, according to ANAD. As a result, these complications are usually reported as the cause of death, instead of the eating disorder itself. However, from the available data, the mortality rate is 4 percent for anorexia nervosa, 3.9 percent for bulimia and 5.2 percent for other, unspecified eating disorders.
Misconception No. 5
A simple change in diet will effectively treat an eating disorder.
While eating disorders are treatable, it’s not as easy as a simple change in diet. In fact, some patients may be treated on an inpatient basis, while others may be treated on a residential, partial hospital or intensive outpatient basis. The treatment time, setting and level of care may vary depending on the severity of the disorder. There is also a therapeutic component to recovery where the patient must learn how to stop their destructive behaviors and develop copings skills to deal with the mental health problems that may be causing the eating disorder.
Cohn is adamant that eating disorders are curable, but admits for some the struggle may continue throughout their lifetime. “For the people who don’t reach full recovery, the goal for them is to improve their lives, to be happier, healthy people,” he reassures.
Cohn goes on to say that for people who do fully recover, “Their lives are fantastic because they’ve gotten to know themselves so well during recovery that they are not wearing masks. They’re not trying to conform to society’s standards or be anyone other than who they are.”
Knowing the facts surrounding eating disorders helps build awareness and enables people to seek treatment. If you suspect that you have an eating disorder, or think that you know someone who does, please seek professional help for a proper diagnosis and clinical counseling. For more information on help and support, visit the websites of N.A.M.E.D. and the National Eating Disorders Association.
Megan Dottermusch is the community manager for Counseling at Northwestern, the masters in counseling program offered by The Family Institute at Northwestern online. The program offers students the unique opportunity to gain clinical knowledge and acquire necessary skills to become successful clinical mental health counselors no matter where they live.