Eating disorders carry with them not only the physical challenges and mental anguish of trying to change dangerous behaviors, but also a social stigma. Many in the general public don’t have any knowledge of the signs of eating disorders or the factors that can increase risk.
In addition, those with eating disorders often feel judged by friends and family because there is a misconception that eating disorders, especially anorexia, is a lifestyle choice utilized by those who are especially vain.
The reality is, of course, far different. Recently a study was conducted to measure the misconceptions promoted by the media on the subject of eating disorders (O’Hara & Clegg-Smith, 2007). Their work appears in the journal Patient Education and Counseling.
Understanding the misconceptions of the public about eating disorders is important because general attitudes and stigmas attached to mental disorders can prevent individuals from seeking a diagnosis and limits the treatment options available in a community.
One finding from the study shows that one commonly misunderstood aspect of eating disorders is the root of its development. Research focusing on twin comparisons shows that genetic factors are responsible for more than 50 percent of the increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
However, a 2005 National Eating Disorders Association poll found that Americans largely believe that dieting, the media and family are the most significant causes of eating disorders. In fact, only 30 percent of Americans believe that there is a link between eating disorders and genetic causes.
O’Hara and Clegg-Smith discovered several areas of significant gap between the medical community and public opinion. For instance, the public believes that eating disorders affect only females, while research shows that men make up more than ten percent of eating disorder sufferers.
The public also has a misperception that eating disorders only affect teens or adolescents, while research shows that eating disorders can affect any age, from childhood to older adulthood.
The analysis of the media examined by the researchers also revealed that eating disorders are often cast as a whites-only problem. Research shows that rates of eating disorders are comparable across different races. No study has identified any minority population that is free of eating disorder diagnoses.
While the negative effects of eating disorders such as heart failure and bone density loss have been well documented in research, one study examined by O’Hara and Clegg-Smith showed that only three percent of respondents believed that anorexia and bulimia had any physical consequences. Moreover, the public believes that eating disorders are easy to overcome, but research shows that only approximately 50 percent of patients recover fully.
Public misperceptions about eating disorders are still common. While many individuals receive treatment and recover to lead a healthy life, anorexia remains the mental disorder with the highest death rate. The research highlights the need for more education in order to prevent eating disorders and bring awareness to the general public.