10 Misconceptions about Eating Disorders

By Halina Newberry Grant 04/15/15

Let's get rid of the fallacies and concentrate on the solutions.


Eating disorders are not about the food. Whether someone struggles to eat, to not eat, or struggles to keep their food down, the food behavior is just a symptom of something much more serious. 

The bible of mental health professionals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) classifies eating disorders as mental illness—a condition and disorder that effects mood, thinking and behavior in the afflicted. Treatment varies; sometimes therapy is all that is needed. In some cases a combination of therapy and medication helps. 

While it is helpful to have an actual medical diagnosis, eating disorders are also an addiction—sometimes to food, and sometimes to behaviors. Finding a recovery program (whether at a rehab facility or in 12-step rooms) where work is done on the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of their lives, provides many with a reprieve from the symptoms of the addict mind. 

Regardless of how eating disorders are defined by the medical community or the individual who suffers, there is a disconnect in our culture when it comes to understanding the seriousness of eating disorders, and a lack of understanding and compassion around whether or not compulsive food behavior is within the control of the afflicted. 

As someone in recovery for an eating disorder, I have experienced firsthand the ill effects of misinformation and misunderstanding. I would probably have gotten help at the first sign of symptoms if the people around me were better informed. 

I don’t personally think it matters why I can’t control my food—whether it’s an anxiety disorder, mental illness or my heroin of choice. It only matters that I find a solution. For me, the most important step in that direction is helping others to understand the disease. 

Here is a list of the 10 misconceptions I encounter most often, and my attempts at edification—but because I’m not an expert or mental health professional, some helpful links follow:

1. Anorexia and bulimia are the only eating disorders.

Like a lot of people, I grew up with an awareness of some eating disorders. I understood that people who starved themselves were anorexic and that bulimics ate a lot of food then threw it up. I knew that this behavior was something they couldn’t control, and they would often allow themselves to be knocking on death’s door before they got help. 

My eating disorder didn’t look like either of these afflictions, so it took me until I was in my 30s to get help. 

I myself am a binger who doesn’t purge, and a restrictor who doesn’t starve long enough to drop to a dangerously low weight—neither anorexic nor bulimic. There are a lot of names for eating disorders that you might not have heard: binge eating disorder (B.E.D.), compulsive overeater, exercise bulimic, exercise avoider, anorectic, sugar addict, food addict…each individual identifies differently. Just like any other addiction, it is up to the sufferer and their mental health professional to come to their own understanding of their disease. 

2. Eating disorders are not addictions.

First off, let’s establish that it is possible to be addicted to food. I have friends who have been addicted to both heroin and sugar, and found sugar more difficult to put down.

It is often debated whether someone is born an addict or becomes one because of life circumstances. Most people agree that an addict manages their emotions with their substance of choice. 

Food addicts are like any alcoholic, but instead of beer they pick up donuts. Instead of drinking blackouts, they have binges—periods of time where they consume mass quantities of food unconsciously, with little-to-no awareness that they are eating or how much. 

Food addicts negotiate with themselves and others to get their fix.

Food addicts lie to themselves and others about their consumption.

Food addicts lie, cheat and steal to get their high.

Despite warnings from doctors and begging by loved ones, food addicts cannot stop their food behaviors. 

Food addicts are selfish, putting their relationship with food before any other relationship. 

Food addicts, anorexics, bulimics, compulsive overeaters, and binge eaters all use food in the same ways that alcoholics use booze, pill addicts abuse prescriptions, and compulsive gamblers throw their lives away at an OTB.

Food addicts and people with eating disorders break the hearts of their loved ones over and over again as they fail to recover and stop their harmful behavior.

3. Eating disorders are not serious, progressive and deadly addictions.

Have you ever known anyone who, despite doctor’s warnings about their heart-health, has refused to change their diet and exercise habits, and died of a heart attack?

Do you know anyone who is diabetic, yet still continues to eat the very foods that will send them to their grave? 

Do you know anyone who is morbidly obese, yet refuses to “listen to reason” when it comes to their food consumption?

Do you know anyone who refuses to eat even though they’ve passed out on the treadmill?

Any addiction, if left untreated, is progressive and deadly. 

4. For people with eating disorders, eating is a choice, and they can stop or start if they wanted to.

If someone with an eating disorder could eat like a normal person, they would. Trust me.

Usually what happens is a person develops disordered behavior around food long before they realize it. They may live for years with their “normal” being bingeing, purging, standing while eating, hiding, hoarding, and restricting their food to extremes before they or anyone else knows they have a problem. 

Since addiction is a progressive disease, over time these food behaviors tend to get more and more extreme, and eventually loved ones are likely to notice. 

Again, the person with the eating disorder doesn’t usually see anything wrong with their food behaviors, and once they are aware, they are in agony because they simply can’t stop. They feel isolated, alone, terrified, hopeless and helpless. 

The brain of the disordered does not work the same way as a normal eater. 

5. Only women have eating disorders.

Just like any addiction, eating disorders do not discriminate. They have no face and no reason. In any recovery room, program or therapist’s couch you will find men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes. The disease—whether you look at it as mental illness or addiction or both—afflicts people from all different walks of life. 

The sooner we all come to understand and accept this fact, the easier it will be for sufferers who don’t fit the stereotype to get the help they need. 

6. Someone is either bulimic or anorexic, not both.

Many people identify as both bulimic and anorexic. Some have experienced bouts of each at various times, sometimes at the same time. 

7. All skinny people are anorexic.

Come on. Can we stop using the word “anorexic” to describe someone who is thin or underweight? Maybe it’s cancer! Maybe it’s recovery from a surgery! Maybe they’re just naturally thin! Who knows?! Let’s mind our own business, and leave the actual medical term for a mental illness to the actually afflicted. 

8. All anorexic people are skinny, and bingers are fat.

Most people with eating disorders look very “normal” to you and me. 

9. Overweight people have no will power.

Will power is a touchy subject when we’re talking about addiction. I can drink a half-glass of wine and stop there, no problem. I can go months without drinking alcohol without missing it. 

If you need me to hold your weed or cocaine, I will stash it somewhere and forget about it. 

But I always know where the donuts are, how much candy is left, how much ice cream is in the freezer, and even though vanilla isn’t my favorite, like a magician at a kid’s birthday party, I’ll make it disappear.

Here’s what addicts have in spades: will power. In fact, it is our very strong will that takes over every time we try to quit our addict behavior. Our disease voice says “I have a better idea” just when we try to get it together. Our will is in charge, and an expert at all things. It knows better than a doctor’s advice, a child’s tears, and a pleading spouse. It is our will that leads us down the path to destruction over and over again. 

It is a compulsive overeater’s will that takes over when they secretly go through five drive-thru restaurants in a night. A bulimic’s will rationalizes just one more purge. An anorexic’s will takes over every time they skip a meal.

10. People have eating disorders because of a traumatic childhood.

Many people with eating disorders come from loving families, and happy childhoods. Each person has their own story and life experiences and understanding of how and why they can’t stop their addictive behaviors. 

For some people, they began compulsive food behavior as a way to deal with anxiety or stress. Others starve themselves because they couldn’t manage their emotions around a particularly traumatic event—but there is no one reason an addict acts out. 

If you have more questions about eating disorders, here are some online resources that you may find helpful:




Halina Newberry Grant is a writer with a kid, a dog and a husband, in no particular order. She broke up with NYC after 15 years, and now lives in LA and tries not to complain.

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