8 Common Myths About Eating Disorders

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There are many commonly held myths in the public conversation about eating disorders which are important to address. Here, Dr Michelle Clifford, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Chair of the CPsychI Eating Disorders Special Interest Group, sorts fact from fiction when it comes to the some of the common misconceptions.

This page originally appeared as a blog post on our website. You can view the original blog post by clicking here.

FACT: An estimated 188,895 Irish people will experience an

eating disorder at some point in their lives. Approximately

1757 new cases develop each year in Ireland in the 10-49 age

group.Recently published data from Finland highlights that

eating disorders are a common public health concern among

youth and young adults, affecting 1 in 6 females and 1 in 40

males. Adolescence is the peak age of onset for Anorexia

Nervosa with recent studies, including the UK and Ireland,

suggesting an increase of incidence in children aged 12 and


FACT: Eating disorders are more common in females although the gender gap has narrowed. Eating

disorders in boys and men are traditionally under-recognised and under-diagnosed. They are

estimated to account for 25% of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa cases and yet only 1% of research

published on eating disorders focuses on males. Eating disorders affect people of all genders, age, races,

ethnicities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic status.

FACT: Eating disorders are serious diagnosable mental health disorders. The five main eating

disorders are Anorexia Nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), Binge Eating Disorder (BED), Avoidant

Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) as

classified in both the DSM V and ICD-11.

FACT: Eating disorders occur at all weights and body shapes. Although weight loss is a defining

feature of Anorexia Nervosa, it is not the case with Bulimia Nervosa and binge eating disorder. Atypical

Anorexia Nervosa is where all the criteria for Anorexia Nervosa are met, but despite significant weight

loss, weight is in the normal range. It is not a less severe eating disorder and yet is associated with

challenges for early recognition.

FACT: Eating disorders have the highest mortality and morbidity risk of all mental health disorders.

Anorexia Nervosa is the most lethal. Current data for adolescents indicate that 10% of those who present

with the disorder will die prematurely from it within 10 years of onset. The causes of death from Anorexia

Nervosa are commonly physical due to the effects of starvation.  From a mental health perspective,

people with eating disorders also have a much higher lifetime risk of having another mental health

disorder such an anxiety disorder, a mood disorder especially depression, substance use disorders

and impulse control disorders.  20% of fatalities associated with Anorexia Nervosa are accounted for by


FACT: Despite the relatively higher levels of mortality with

eating disorders, there have been improvements in the

prognosis over the last decade. Eating Disorder Focused

Family Therapy (FBT/FT-AN) and Enhanced Cognitive

Behavioural Therapy for Eating Disorders (CBT-E) are current

first line evidence based treatments that have been found to

enable 40-45% of patients with eating disorders to achieve

remission, with a further 30% having a clinically significant

partial recovery.

Adolescent patients have an even better prognosis with early

intervention. An evidence-based, early intervention care

pathway (FREED) has been developed in the UK for 16 to 25 year

olds with an eating disorder of less than 3 years duration with exciting improvements in waiting times,

symptoms, patient experience and cost savings.

FACT: As with many mental health disorders, the causes of eating disorders are a complex mixture of

biological, psychological and social factors. 40-60% of the estimated causality of Anorexia Nervosa and

Bulimia Nervosa is heritable or genetic. An exciting global study published results last year in Nature

Genetics suggesting that the genetic origins of Anorexia Nervosa are both metabolic and psychiatric.

The two well-known most common risk factors for developing an eating disorder are body

dissatisfaction and dieting at any weight. While there is little doubt we have much still to learn about the

causes of an eating disorder, we do know that families are not to blame and in fact they are best

recognised as a significant resource by both people with an eating disorder and for those who treat


FACT: Only 5-15% of people with eating disorders seek help and

85% report that it is hard to access treatment, with stigma

playing a large role. And yet most people can and do recover

from eating disorders if they get effective, evidence-based

treatment from Eating Disorder-trained staff. There are

devastating psychosocial consequences associated with

untreated eating disorders. Economic studies recommend that

outpatient, early intervention, stepped care and specialist

community eating disorder teams will reduce the overall

socioeconomic cost through reduced hospital stays, faster

recovery, shorter duration of treatment and relapse prevention.

The majority of eating disorders can be treated in the

community, with hospitalisation being reserved for those who need it. In response to this international

best practice , the HSE in Ireland, through the National Clinical Programme for Eating Disorders, has

developed a strategic vision for the future so that people of all ages throughout the country should be

able to access the necessary services to support them towards as full a recovery as possible.


The HSE National Clinical Programme for Eating Disorders (NCP-ED) is a collaborative initiative between the HSE, the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland, and BodyWhys – the national support group for people with eating disorders.

Bodywhys: Bodywhys is the national voluntary organisation supporting people with eating disorders. Bodywhys is committed to the belief that people can and do recover from eating disorders. They strive to empower people affected by eating disorders to access information, support and treatment.

PO Box 105, Blackrock, Co.Dublin
Helpline: 01 2107906
Email: alex@bodywhys.ie
Website: www.bodywhys.ie