Anorexia Facts & Myths: What You Need to Know

Anorexia is a complex condition that is plagued by a lot of misinformation online. For instance, many people think of anorexia as a condition affecting only women, but that isn’t true. 

We’ve outlined some important anorexia facts and myths below. And we cover some tips on the best ways to avoid further misinformation when doing your own research online.

Author | Bulimia.com Staff

Person with anorexia
TABLE OF CONTENTS | Myths | Facts | Find Accurate Information | Treatment

Anorexia Myths Busted

Myth #1: Only Women Develop Anorexia

While eating disorders (EDs) are somewhat more prevalent among women, a significant number of men also develop them. [1] 

The idea that a particular eating disorder only occurs in one sex can be harmful, as it may lead to a person who develops an eating disorder that is not typically associated with their gender to feel ostracized and become less likely to seek help. A person in any group can develop anorexia or any other eating disorder and deserves to feel safe in seeking help for their condition.

Myth #2: Fasting or Undereating is Safe

Some people incorrectly assume that fasting and undereating are safe behaviors. It’s somewhat easy to cherry-pick technically correct facts to support that point. However, the reality is that anorexia nervosa is associated with a significant increase in a person experiencing medical complications due to starvation and malnutrition. [2] 

The human body cannot sustain itself without the proper nutrients. The fasting practices many people with anorexia engage in can make it very difficult to get those nutrients.

Myth #3: People With EDs Should Just “Get Over It”

Eating disorders like anorexia are complex mental health conditions where a person often develops a distorted image of their body that cannot easily be changed, especially without the help of a mental health professional. Implying their mental health condition is just something they should “get over” is, unfortunately, somewhat common and can be harmful. 

Like a physical health condition, such as a broken arm, eating disorders often require the intervention of trained professionals before a person can begin to heal properly. There are healthy ways to encourage a person to seek help, but using shame or downplaying the nature of their condition isn’t going to help. 

Myth #4: Things Will Improve After a Certain Amount of Weight Loss

People who have anorexia, and many people who struggle with similar eating disorders, generally engage in the behaviors associated with their condition, such as restricting their food intake or overexercising, to change the shape of their body. Individuals struggling with an eating disorder and those around them may therefore expect some improvement in their mental health as they lose weight. 

However, the reality is that an eating disorder distorts the way a person perceives themselves, and many people with EDs “move the goalposts” as they lose weight, always seeking to lose more. Even if a person with an ED has a particular body goal in mind, the goal they often set can be one that might put them dangerously underweight and result in severe malnutrition. 

It is absolutely possible to recover from anorexia and begin to perceive one’s body more positively. Still, it generally requires working with a mental health professional to start fixing a distorted self-perception. 

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Anorexia Facts to Remember

Fact #1: Change Comes in Steps 

When a person seeks help for anorexia, it’s important to remember that mental health is a spectrum. A person with anorexia is unlikely to go from dangerously restricted eating habits and an extremely poor body image to fully recovering in only a few weeks. 

Instead, they will work with their treatment professional to improve their body image and develop healthier habits. Progress is made in steps; sometimes, a person may suffer from setbacks, especially if triggering events happen in their life, such as occurrences that cause extreme stress. 

What’s important is that the person seeking help and those supporting them accept that positive change, even when those changes are small on an individual level, helps pave the path toward long-term recovery. 

Fact #2: There’s Significant Misinformation Online

Unfortunately, the internet is full of a great deal of dieting and nutritional advice that simply isn’t based on scientific evidence. Entire industries have been built on making people purchase a particular supplement or follow a certain diet trend, even if that means spreading destructive misinformation and damaging the body image of the people reading a company’s content or watching their videos. 

Other misinformation may be less nefarious in intent but still harmful if it gives diet and other health advice that is simply wrong. If a person already struggles with their body image, especially if they struggle with their mental health, it is important that they try and only use sources based on actual medical research and accurate data when researching advice. 

A good place to start is often government resources, as these sources are often written by trained professionals and use good sources for their facts and figures.

Fact #3: Neurobiology Has a Role in EDs

Research has started to uncover that neurobiology plays an important part in whether a person develops eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. [3] While some sources claim EDs are caused by culture and environment, this is only partially true. For example, the disorders have some biological component, as it has been shown that they are highly heritable. 

It also appears that people more likely to develop anorexia have a different way of processing reward and punishment. In these people, rewards seem to generate less brain activity than normal, and punishments generate more brain activity than normal. It’s been hypothesized that this may be part of the susceptibility to eating disorders, as part of what drives us to eat is the pleasure (reward) associated with taste. 

Finding Accurate and Useful Information About Anorexia

Whether doing research for yourself or someone you care about, it’s important to seek out information on anorexia carefully. Again, many sources, even well-intentioned, may contain outdated, inaccurate, or outright dangerous information. 

Good sources to start your search with include:

  • Government sources (.gov)
  • Academic sources (.edu)
  • Well-reputed scientific journals
  • Well-reputed organization sites focusing on anorexia-specific and ED-specific help

It can also be helpful to talk directly with mental health professionals, even if you aren’t ready to receive treatment, just to get accurate information and some helpful advice for staying as safe as possible. 

Diagnosing and Treating Anorexia

Anorexia can be diagnosed by a mental health professional. [4] Receiving a diagnosis is a significant first step toward recovery, as many people with anorexia struggle to recognize they have an eating disorder. 

Once a potential issue is identified, it is essential to gauge an individual’s current physical health. [5] Common tests that are conducted include:

  • Albumin
  • Bone density test
  • CBC
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Electrolytes
  • Kidney function tests
  • Liver function tests
  • Total protein
  • Thyroid function tests
  • Urinalysis

Treatment of anorexia is multifaceted and can take a long time. [6] It is best to enter treatment with realistic expectations. Improvements will be incremental, and some backsliding is possible. It may also be necessary to try multiple types of therapies to see which works best for a given individual’s needs. 

The initial goal is to help a person at least achieve a level of nutrition intake that will make the condition less likely to become life-threatening. A significant focus in therapy will be on helping the individual improve their sense of self-worth and how they perceive their own body.

Medicines can sometimes help an individual gain control over some of the symptoms associated with anorexia. [7] These are common medications used in anorexia treatment:

  • Antidepressants
  • Antipsychotics
  • Mood stabilizers

In some cases, an emergency hospital visit may be required if a person dealing with anorexia is experiencing health complications as a result of severe malnutrition or other medical complications caused by undereating. 

Resources


  1. Striegel-Moore RH, Rosselli F, Perrin N, DeBar L, Wilson GT, May A, Kraemer HC. (2009). Gender difference in the prevalence of eating disorder symptoms. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 42(5):471-4. 
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. (2021, December). Eating Disorders. Retrieved August 18, 2022.
  3. Weir, K. (2016). New Insights on Eating Disorders. American Psychological Association. 
  4. MedlinePlus. (2020). Anorexia. National Institutes of Health.
  5. Sidiropoulos M. Anorexia nervosa: The physiological consequences of starvation and the need for primary prevention efforts. McGill Journal of Medicine, 10(1):20-5. 
  6. Leigh S. (2019). Many Patients with Anorexia Nervosa Get Better, but Complete Recovery Elusive to Most. University of California San Francisco.
  7. Schirmer S. (2018). What the Specialists Want Us to Know: Prevention, Identification and Treatment of Eating Disorders. Kentucky Eating Disorder Council.

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