Anorexia Nervosa: Myths vs Facts

This article was written by Sara Sonnenblick.

Myth

In order to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, one has to be underweight.

Fact

Anorexia nervosa can be present in someone whose body mass index (BMI) is classified as underweight, average, “normal” weight (even though there is no such thing as “normal” weight), or obese. In other words, people of all weights and body compositions can be diagnosed with anorexia. In fact, this new criteria for diagnosing anorexia is not strictly through BMI but rather through one’s growth chart and their corresponding weight predictions.

According to a study conducted by UCF and published in the journal of Pediatrics, patients who are not medically underweight and suffer with anorexia nervosa are equally likely to display the physical complications of the disorder as those who are medically underweight. That being said, in order to be diagnosed with this disorder, one does not have to display physical complications at all. Anorexia nervosa is classified as a mental disorder, not a physical one!

Nevertheless, anorexia nervosa is often misconceived as one that develops only within a thin body, which is not always the case.

Myth

People with anorexia do not like food.

Fact

Many people with eating disorders think about food obsessively, despite appearing as though they hate food on the exterior.

When a person limits their food intake, their thoughts can revolve around that food that they are not eating. Consider this psychological struggle even in individuals who do not necessarily have an eating disorder. A person on a particular diet who designates certain foods as “off-limits” may start thinking about those foods obsessively. Since they are not allowing themselves to eat the food, their thoughts can easily become dominated by that food, such as what it tastes like and when they will be “allowed” to eat it next.

Some individuals with anorexia nervosa may look at certain foods as inherently “bad” and, therefore, avoid eating them. As a result, the human brain and body experiences deprivation and obsesses over that food. As Psychology Today puts it, “if there’s a truly defining feature of anorexia, it’s the denial of hunger, not its absence.”

Altogether, an individual suffering with anorexia nervosa might appear disinterested or disgusted by food from an outsider’s perspective. However, their outward appearances may not depict what is truly happening in their minds because they might, in actuality, be constantly thinking about food.

Myth

Anorexia nervosa develops strictly out of physical insecurities.

Fact

This deadly disease can manifest itself due to a number of environmental, social, and mental struggles that are not related to physical insecurities, such as:

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Childhood trauma
  • Social pressures
  • Family food behaviors
  • Genetics
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Transitions in lifestyle
  • History with dieting

Due to modern Western culture’s impact on society, many individuals develop anorexia nervosa to fit into the beauty standard. Yet, this is not the only way that one can develop the disease, as often, restricting one’s food intake can be a coping mechanism. Some people with anorexia find that controlling their food helps them manage the fact that there is some aspect(s) of their life that they cannot control. While these people might respond to feeling out of control for some relief, this coping mechanism is not constructive or conducive to a person’s physical or mental health.

Myth

Anyone who loses a substantial amount of weight is anorexic.

Fact

Just losing weight is not the only criteria for diagnosing anorexia nervosa. While some people with anorexia may have lost a significant amount of weight, not all people with anorexia experience weight fluctuations in the same way.

Anorexia nervosa is a mental disorder that affects factors other than weight, such as one’s relationships, mood, energy, and more. In order to diagnose anorexia nervosa, medical professionals have to evaluate patients’ thoughts about gaining weight as well as their perception of themselves.

As a result, it is not right to automatically assume or diagnose an eating disorder when observing weight loss in oneself or another person. Weight loss can be a positive accomplishment for some individuals who want to better their health in a nourishing, safe way. For those who may have an eating disorder, it is best that they seek help from a medical professional in order to obtain a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Additionally, this claim can be belittling to those struggling with anorexia nervosa because not all people with anorexia drop weight dramatically. If a person who privately struggles with this disease hears someone calling another person anorexic just because they lost weight, they will feel that their struggles with anorexia are invalidated since they did not lose enough weight to feel noticed. It is important that a person understands their struggles with anorexia are valid and that they are still worthy of a better lifestyle no matter what they look like on the outside.

It is important to understand that the above content may also relate to other eating disorders beyond anorexia nervosa. In fact, eating disorders can manifest within each individual body in differing ways, and people can have multiple eating disorders. Similarly, a person with anorexia nervosa may not relate to one, multiple, or any of the above mentioned statements, which is completely valid and should not dismiss one’s personal struggles.

It is the hope of Letters to Strangers that denouncing these harmful myths will help people better understand the reality of anorexia nervosa. With increased awareness, people will be equipped to support those around them and seek relief from the physical and psychological ailments associated with anorexia.

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Letters to Strangers

Letters to Strangers

Global youth-run NGO seeking to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable quality mental healthcare. Join us!