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Debunking myths about eating disorders

I’d like to debunk a few eating-disorder myths, especially since Lake Oswego is no stranger to the epidemic.

I remember being in high school and having peers pass out in class because they hadn’t eaten all day. Overall, eating-disorder rates increased nationally by 18 percent between 1999 and 2006, and local rates may be much higher. Eating disorders can be tougher to spot than substance use because they are often easier to hide. My hope is that by exposing some myths, we can increase the accurate knowledge around this commonly misunderstood illness.

One myth is that you can tell someone has an eating disorder by looking at them. Individuals who binge and purge (common with bulimia) may not show a drastic decrease in weight. Someone who is restricting their calories (as in anorexia) may lose significant weight but not appear severely malnourished. Plus, how often do you see your teenager undressed anymore? And are you with them during every meal time? Try to look at the relationship they have with food. Are there certain foods that are “OK” and others that aren’t? Do they seem anxious around meal times? Do they make negative comments about their physical appearance?

Another common myth is that eating disorders are not as serious as other mental health disorders. However, those with anorexia have a mortality rate six times higher than the general population; for females 15-24 years old, the mortality rate is 12 times higher. Individuals with anorexia often suffer from substance abuse and suicidality as well as starvation and heart failure, which all increase the likelihood for serious medical issues and death. Also, someone addicted to heroin can attempt to cut the drug out of their life completely, but someone with an eating disorder has to learn how to incorporate food into their life in a healthy way, which can be extremely difficult.

The last myth I want to touch on is that the media is 100 percent at fault for eating disorders. I believe that media plays a significant role, as do societal expectations of women. However, in my experience, I have seen family dynamics play a significant role in a client’s disorder and recovery from it as well. One of the easiest ways to combat this is to watch how you talk about your own body; kids follow their role models. If you, as a parent, have a healthy relationship with food and your body, your children are much more likely to have the same. Teaching self-acceptance in all areas (academically, physically, socially etc.) is essential.

Research around eating disorders and their treatment continues to grow, and recovery is very possible for those who reach out for help.

Teal Bohrer is a psychotherapist specializing in addiction treatment. Shel was born and raised in Lake Oswego and now has a local private practice where she sees adolescents and adults for a variety of issues.


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