Anorexia nervosa is a severe eating disorder that’s characterized by abnormally low body weight and obsessing about weight and food. People with anorexia nervosa may have a distorted body image and an unwarranted fear of being overweight. To prevent weight gain and/or lose weight, these individuals may starve themselves and exercise excessively. Considering that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness, our center for eating disorders in Philly believes that putting an end to stigma is important. Considering this, below are seven common misconceptions about anorexia nervosa we want to address.
7 Common Misconceptions of Anorexia
#1: Anorexia Nervosa Is Strictly About Starvation
Fact: Like other eating disorders, anorexia is linked to underlying psychological struggles and is not just about food.
Anorexia nervosa is associated with extreme restriction and avoidance of food that can lead to problems related to starvation, such as malnutrition, stunted growth, and abnormally low weight. However, the underlying motivations for these behaviors aren’t related to food but rather a deeper, psychological struggle with perfectionism and control.
A person with anorexia nervosa may feel as if food is the one thing in life they can fully control, or that control over food and weight demonstrates admirable qualities like work ethic, discipline, or determination. Feeling in control may alleviate symptoms of any underlying anxiety or problems, which are common among people with anorexia nervosa.
Extreme control over food may make them feel more worthy and acceptable, which is why addressing starvation alone is merely scratching the surface of this condition. Addressing these deeper problems is an important component of anorexia treatment.
#2: Someone Needs to Be Super Thin to Have Anorexia
Fact: People who appear to be at a normal weight can still be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
Many people assume that someone with anorexia nervosa must be extremely thin to be diagnosed with the disorder. It’s common to associate anorexia with an image of extremely low body weight, low muscle density, or a gaunt appearance. Additionally, due to the association between anorexia and weight, many people also assume that slender people automatically meet the criteria for anorexia or are more likely to develop the disorder.
Although a common sign of anorexia is low body weight relative to the person’s age, height, and sex, this isn’t the sole criteria for an anorexia diagnosis. People who are just outside of what’s considered a normal weight for their age, height, and sex can be diagnosed with this condition. Aside from weight, other diagnostic criteria for anorexia include problematic behaviors related to weight and food, including restricted eating, fear of weight gain, and relating self-worth to appearance and body shape.
#3: People With Anorexia Nervosa Never Eat
Fact: People with anorexia nervosa do eat, but they often practice extreme calorie counting and restriction and food avoidance.
One of the most common myths about anorexia nervosa is that people with this disorder don’t eat or only eat enough to survive. While extreme food restriction and avoidance are common among people with anorexia, they do eat. In many cases, people with anorexia eat regularly and frequently, although they do restrict the calories, carbs, or sugars they eat and practice avoidance when it comes to certain foods.
People with anorexia may also establish their own eating rules, such as eating only “safe” foods, which the person knows to be within a certain caloric limit or below a certain threshold of fat. They may also keep a strict log of the calories they eat, satisfy their hunger with calorie-free beverages (coffee and diet coke), and avoid energy-dense foods that are high in fat.
Over time, these eating behaviors can lead to a lack of energy and nutrients to properly fuel the body and keep everything working properly. Extreme health repercussions are sure to follow, including undernourishment.
#4: Anorexia Nervosa Only Affects Women
Fact: Hundreds and thousands of men also have anorexia nervosa. This disorder is not limited to women.
Anorexia nervosa is often considered a “female” disorder, and it’s often believed that men can’t have anorexia. Although this disorder is more common among women, men make up as much as 10% of anorexia cases.1
With that said, there are slight differences in anorexia symptoms among men compared to women. For instance, anorexia in men often stems from body dysmorphia or an aspiration to be lean and muscular rather than extremely thin. It’s also important to remember that men are not immune to the pressures of society’s expectations and also struggle with body image and discontent related to body shape.
#5: Anorexia Is a Choice
Fact: Anorexia is a psychiatric disorder linked to dysfunctional thought patterns and behaviors.
For those who have not experienced anorexia, extreme food restriction and avoidance may appear to be a matter of choice, but the reality of anorexia nervosa is that these behaviors are linked to much deeper thoughts and beliefs. Anorexia is largely based on the association of self-worth with appearance and weight, as well as achieving perfection and control through food and eating behaviors.
People with anorexia tend to have problems with self-doubt and self-worth, as well as an extreme fear of gaining weight. These behaviors are usually the result of underlying mental health problems. Nowhere in the diagnosis criteria for anorexia is personal choice included.
#6: Anorexia Nervosa Takes Away Your Period
Fact: Not every woman who has anorexia experiences stopped or abnormal menstrual cycles.
Missed menstrual periods in people with anorexia, while common, will depend on the severity of the eating disorder. A woman with an eating disorder like anorexia may experience irregular or missed periods when the disorder becomes severe enough to impact the hypothalamus-pituitary axis and reduce estrogen levels. Because this symptom varies from person to person, abnormal menstrual cycles are not a diagnostic factor of eating disorders but rather an expected side effect in women.
#7: Anorexia Goes Away on Its Own
Fact: Anorexia nervosa is a serious psychological disorder that’s unlikely to go away or be managed without professional treatment.
One of the most unfortunate yet common misconceptions about anorexia, is that it goes away on its own. The onset of anorexia nervosa usually occurs during adolescence, which is believed to be linked to puberty and growing societal pressures related to body shape and weight. While anorexia is less likely to begin in adults, it’s still possible and does not mean that symptoms subside as a person gets older.
Anorexia is a serious psychiatric condition that is not likely to go away on its own or without eating disorder support. Thoughts and behaviors associated with this disorder are ingrained and can take a considerable amount of time, effort, and care to learn how to manage. On this note, remember that eating disorders, like other mental health disorders, are not a choice but rather another condition that requires support and care.
Our Eating Disorder Treatment in Philadelphia
The reality of eating disorders like anorexia is severe, but it doesn’t have to be bleak. Banyan Treatment Center Philadelphia offers various levels of eating disorder treatment, including an anorexia nervosa program. Our specialists are here to help you or a loved one find relief and achieve a happier and healthier life.
For more information about our recovery programs in Philadelphia, call Banyan at 888-280-4763.