For the media

9 truths about eating disorders

By The Health News Team | February 24, 2022
Young woman struggling emotionally

Eating disorders — such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder — are serious mental illnesses that affect people of every age, gender, race and socioeconomic group. It is estimated that just under 30 million people in the U.S. have had an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime.

While eating disorders are a serious illness and can be fatal, they are often misunderstood as a personal choice or “phase” one goes through. This can lead to barriers to better understanding and knowledge, as well as access to affordable evidence-based treatment.

“Eating disorders are nobody’s fault,” says Dr. Linda Santangelo, lead clinical psychologist with the Eating Disorders Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “There are numerous contributing factors that lead to their development. Symptoms may vary from person to person, which is why it is important to talk to someone who specializes in treating eating disorders. Understanding the illness is the first step in getting better.”

To help remove the stigma and challenge the mistruths surrounding eating disorders, the Academy for Eating Disorders developed Nine Truths About Eating Disorders. Recognizing these basic facts can help people better understand disordered eating and help those in need find quality care.

  1. Many people with eating disorders look healthy yet may be extremely ill.
    Unlike images often depicted in the media of young, emaciated women, people with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, the majority of people are not underweight.

  2. Families are not to blame, and can be the patients’ and providers’ best allies in treatment.
    While parents, especially mothers, are often blamed for a child’s eating disorder, parents do not cause the disorders. In fact, recent research supports that eating disorders have a strong biological root.

  3. An eating disorder diagnosis is a health crisis that disrupts personal and family functioning.
    Eating disorders can affect all organs in the body, especially the heart, and result in serious physical illness, even death. They are also often accompanied by isolation, mood swings, deception, and intense rigidity surrounding eating and exercise, all of which can greatly affect one’s relationships and quality of life.

  4. Eating disorders are not choices, but rather serious biologically influenced illnesses.
    The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that having a relative with an eating disorder increases a person’s risk of developing an eating disorder. Anxiety, depression and addiction can also run in families, and have been found to increase the chances a person will develop an eating disorder.

  5. Eating disorders affect people of all genders, ages, races, ethnicities, body shapes, weights, sexual orientations and socioeconomic statuses.
    Eating disorders do not only affect young women. They affect many groups of people:
    Men represent 25% of people with anorexia nervosa.
    • Approximately 13% of women over 50 engage in disordered eating.
    • Women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, or mostly heterosexual were about twice as likely to report binge eating at least once per month in the last year.
    • Gay men are seven times more likely to report binge eating and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual men.
    • Approximately 16% of transgender college students have an eating disorder.

  6. Eating disorders carry an increased risk for both suicide and medical complications.
    Studies have revealed that approximately 20% of deaths of people with anorexia was from suicide. Additionally, a study found approximately one-third of deaths of individuals with anorexia was due to cardiovascular issues.

  7. Genes and environment play important roles in the development of eating disorders.
    A growing consensus of evidence suggests that a range of biological, psychological and sociocultural factors come together in the development of an eating disorder. Once the disorder has taken hold, it can become a self-sustaining process.

  8. Genes alone do not predict who will develop eating disorders.
    Environmental factors can include society’s thin-ideal norms as well as physical illnesses and other life stressors.

  9. Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible.
    Early detection and intervention are important. Eating disorders can be treated through a combination of psychological therapy, nutritional counseling, medical care and psychiatric monitoring. NEDA recommends that the symptoms and medical consequences of the eating disorder be addressed along with psychological, biological, interpersonal and cultural forces that contribute to or maintain the eating disorder.

“Specialized treatment is key to recovery,” says Dr. Santangelo. “Individualized care — which includes group, family and individual therapy — along with medical and nutritional support are all key components in providing a safe space for those who suffer to begin to reclaim their lives, free from their eating disorder.”

If you or a loved one is concerned about disordered thoughts or behaviors related to food and exercise, Dr. Santangelo encourages you to talk with your doctor. Treatments for eating disorders are available and can be highly effective.

Learn more about specialized eating disorder treatment programs at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.

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