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Busting 5 Myths about Eating Disorders

By Kathrin Gioia, Senior Occupational Therapist at Cygnet Hospital Ealing

This week (1st March – 7th March) marks Eating Disorders Awareness Week when the spotlight falls on the experiences of those with eating disorders and helping to create greater awareness of this serious mental illness. According to Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, it is estimated that around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Moreover, the number of children with an eating disorder has been increasing rapidly during the pandemic, with conditions such as anorexia thriving in the isolation of lockdown.

Kathrin is a Senior Occupational Therapist at Cygnet Hospital Ealing, which specialises in personalised treatment for service users with an eating disorder. In this blog, she shares some of many pervasive myths about eating disorders, and draws from her inpatient experiences to correct misinformation around this commonly misunderstood illness.

Myth 1: An eating disorder only has to do with food.

This is one of the most common misconceptions around eating disorders. Some people might think that all we need to do is just get victims of eating disorders to eat. That’s a very old-school way of thinking. The reality is that people suffer from anxiety around mealtimes and feel guilty about eating so in that way it is not related to food. It is also important to remember that eating disorders can be deadly because these individuals suffering from eating disorders are unable to store enough nutrients in their body.

When patients come in, their memory and concentration levels are often very low. The brain survives on fats, vitamins and other nutrients and without these, the brain will struggle to work properly. Some patients might struggle to string sentences together, or read a page of a magazine or forget things like their bank PIN. When patients look back after they have recovered, they are often shocked that they were in that place where they could not even read a magazine.

As an Occupational Therapist, it is my role to get to know each patient and understand the ways that their illness is stopping them doing the important activities of their daily lives, such as preparing a meal; buying new clothing and applying for a new job.

Myth 2: Eating disorders only affect women.

While it’s true that anorexia is a psychiatric illness that tends to affect more women, these illnesses occur in men and boys as well. I recently did training with a mother whose son had become ill with an eating disorder when he was only thirteen. He stopped eating and eventually needed to be hospitalised in a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services eating disorder unit. Recently, I’ve started opening the conversation about male eating disorders, with more and more people opening up to me about their sons who have suffered or are suffering from an eating disorder.

Myth 3: People choose to have an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are often not an isolated diagnosis and patients may suffer from anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or other mental health difficulties. The main narrative with many eating disorders is a sense of being able to control what is going on around you. When you are unable to control your environment, whether it’s because you have abusive parents or an abusive partner, or anything you can’t control, food becomes one of the ways to control what is happening around you. In that way, food becomes one of the things that can be controlled.

This may partly explain the soaring number of people experiencing anorexia and bulimia in the UK during the pandemic. During the pandemic, the social restrictions took away our sense of control as our networks and social support systems reduced quite significantly. Many people are struggling more with isolation and uncertainty and using food for a sense of control and comfort.

Myth 4: You can tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them

It is difficult to tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder only by looking at them. People who suffer from eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. Public discussion about eating disorders tends to focus on a specific diagnose such as anorexia, which is one type of eating disorder that can result in severe weight loss. However, there are a number of different eating disorders including binge eating disorder, bulimia, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder. Individuals who suffer with different types of eating disorders can be of any weight.

Myth 5: An eating disorder is a temporary phrase that goes away in time.

There is no quick fix and an eating disorder is something that can be with you for a very long time. It needs to be understood that recovering from an eating disorder is no easy ride, and being an inpatient is the start of a journey that will involve hard work and commitment from the patients, their families and relevant healthcare professionals.

An eating disorder can make you have two minds; you have an eating disorder on one side and the self that you want to be, on the other side. Throughout your illness, you have these two voices and treatment includes trying to minimize the anorexic voice, enough to support recovery. This can be done with appropriate treatment and support.

Studies have proved that after three hospital admissions, the chances of recovery from anorexia could decrease. When we get patients who are first-time admissions, we focus on helping them to recover as best as possible in order to prevent any type of relapse. Patients who are experiencing their 2nd or 3rd admission do also have the potential to fully recover although it may be a more complex process.

It really is so rewarding to work with patients to a point where they are able to prepare meals, eat with family and friends and be able to return to other meaningful activities.

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