Eating Disorders in Sports Part 2 - Eating Disorder Myths vs. Facts
Updated: Sep 21, 2020
Trigger warning: This post discusses eating disorders and disordered eating.
Hi everyone! Today's post is part two of our four-part series, Eating Disorders in Sports! If you haven't already, please read part one of this series, which covers the specifics of eating disorders! It provides the context for this blog post and will make the most of your time :).
Mental health, and specifically eating disorders, are topics riddled with myths and misconceptions that perpetuate stereotypes and push away sufferers. An important part of breaking the stigma is sharing the truths about eating disorders and challenging harmful messaging. We will be busting seven major eating disorder myths with facts followed by specific action steps you can take to stand up to them. Is there any other myth that you would like busted? Let me know in the comments below!
Myth: Eating disorders only affect young, cis, affluent, white women.
Fact: Eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect people of all genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, ages, and socioeconomic classes. Marginalized groups also suffer from eating disorders at higher rates.
- Black teenagers are 50% more likely than their white counterparts to exhibit bulimic tendencies, and Hispanic people are at higher risk for bulimia. Doctors are also much less likely to diagnose a BIPOC person with an eating disorder, even if they present with the same behaviors and symptoms as a white person (1).
- According to the Trevor Project, 71% of transgender people and 54% of LGBTQ people overall have diagnosed eating disorders. Men are also estimated to make up a third of eating disorder sufferers. They, too, are less likely to seek treatment due to stigma (2).
Action step: Remember that anyone can have an eating disorder. Especially look out for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized populations, as the social inequities in healthcare make them less likely to receive the support they need and deserve.
Myth: Eating disorders are a diet gone wrong or a vanity issue.
Fact: While dieting and poor body image can trigger eating disorders, they are NOT merely an extreme diet or hatred of one's appearance. A multitude of factors cause eating disorders, including genetics, environment, and upbringing. They are often maladaptive coping strategies for other complex psychological issues, including low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, OCD, and PTSD. Reducing an eating disorder to its superficial symptoms negates the deep-rooted issues that often accompany them.
Action step: If you notice a peer engaging in dieting behaviors or expressing negative body image, talk to them. Respectfully express your concern and offer them support.
Myth: You can't have an eating disorder if you eat.
Fact: Eating disorders present a spectrum of behaviors, and restriction is only one of them. Some common behaviors include compulsive exercise, bingeing, purging, laxative/diet pill use, food rules, and food rituals. Many eating disorder sufferers will not completely stop eating: many can even appear to eat "normally" in front of others to hide their struggles.
Action step: While a dramatic change in someone's eating habits is a red flag, focus less on how much they are eating and more on their relationship with food.
Myth: You can't have an eating disorder if you're not underweight.
Fact: Eating disorders are not a "look": they affect people of all different body shapes and sizes. The media stereotypes eating disorder sufferers as thin and gaunt, but anybody of any weight can suffer from an eating disorder - very few fit the emaciated stereotype. People who struggle with anorexia at a "normal" or "higher" BMI are just as likely to suffer serious health consequences as those at a "lower" BMI. They will also require hospitalization at similar rates and are more likely to struggle with severe eating disorder behaviors (3). Using body size to classify whether someone is struggling is harmful and only perpetuates body dysmorphia (a distorted view of one's body).
Action step: If you notice someone struggling with their relationship with food, do not use their size to determine the severity of their struggles. Show everyone the same amount of compassion and respect.
Myth: Eating disorders are a choice.
Fact: Nobody chooses to have an eating disorder. Nobody decides to destroy their mental and physical health, damage relationships, and experience acute psychological distress. Eating disorders develop as a result of complex factors, and similarly, recovery from an eating disorder is complicated. Telling a sufferer just to stop engaging in behaviors (restriction, purging, bingeing, etc.) oversimplifies their struggles and invalidates the eating disorder's psychological ramifications.
Action step: Watching someone you care about struggle with an eating disorder can be frustrating and concerning. Lean into those feelings, but continue to approach them with dignity and kindness. Understand that it is tough to understand what an eating disorder is like unless you have personally struggled with one.
Myth: Losing weight makes you a better athlete.
Fact: Weight loss is not a sustainable means of improving athletic performance. While theoretically, weighing less could mean moving faster, that doesn't take into account the physiological consequences of weight loss that will ultimately stunt improvement. Some physical effects include:
Decreased muscle mass/strength
Slow recovery after training sessions
Increased risk of injury
Increased fatigue and susceptibility to illness
Action step: When you notice someone discussing or engaging in weight loss to improve performance, call it out, and respectfully challenge it. If possible, inform a trusted adult who could support them.
Myth: Dieting is normal for athletes.
Fact: While dieting is, unfortunately, very prevalent among athletes, it is dangerous and has long-term health consequences. 25% of those who diet develop eating disorders, which are the most deadly psychiatric disorders. Eating disorders have severe physical and psychological effects, taking a toll on an athlete's overall well-being and athletic performance. Athletics should not be done at the expense of one's health, and sports culture needs to change to protect the next generation of athletes.
Action step: Like the previous action step, respectfully call out dieting or diet talk and present your evidence. While it can be frustrating, remember that most people don't understand the consequences of dieting. It is difficult to challenge core beliefs, so coming to terms with dieting dangers takes time.
Our next blog post will go in-depth about our current sports culture's toxicity and what needs to change to address the issue of eating disorders. In the meantime, I encourage you to take a step to support someone who is struggling. Whether that is sharing this or the previous blog post or starting a conversation, you never know who it may help. Stay safe, and I hope you all have a beautiful rest of your day!
(1) "People of Color and Eating Disorders." National Eating Disorders Association,
9 Aug. 2020.
(2) "Queer and Hungry: Eating Disorders in the LGBTQ+ Community." Mirror-Mirror,
Mirror-Mirror.org, 2018, mirror-mirror.org/facts-staticstics/
queer-and-hungry-eating-disorders-in-the-lgbtq-community. Accessed 9 Aug.
(3) University of California - San Francisco. "Anorexia nervosa comes in all sizes,
including plus size: Higher BMI does not guard against dangerous heart
risks." ScienceDaily, 6 Nov. 2019, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/
191106130340.htm. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.