Helpful Hints / Mythbusters

3 More Eating Disorder Myths Busted

In March, we debunked four common eating disorder myths. Now we’re back to bust some more. Read on for important information about these often misunderstood illnesses.

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Myth #1. If I had an eating disorder, my kid will have one, too.

Eating disorders are complex illnesses that stem from a variety of factors—environmental, psychological, biological, and—yes—genetic. Although studies find that individuals with a family history of an eating disorder are more likely to develop an eating disorder themselves, genes are just one of many factors that contributes to the onset of these illnesses. Plenty of individuals with a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt, or uncle who has struggled with an eating disorder will never develop one of these syndromes. And some individuals with no family history of eating disturbances will go on to experience anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder. Researchers are still working towards a fuller understanding of why certain individuals develop eating disorders and others don’t, but what we do know is that your eating disorder history does not guarantee that your child will face the same condition.

Myth #2. All exercise is healthy.

Public health ads encouraging physical activity abound and for most people, that daily reminder flashed across the TV screen or on the side of a bus is probably beneficial. Research shows that exercise confers a number of positive health benefits, from reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease to boosting mood and lowering anxiety levels. That said, for some individuals exercise can become extreme and harmful. Too much exercise can contribute to or maintain dangerously low weight, lead to overuse injuries, and become compulsive to the point of interfering with other important activities. On the other hand, some individuals may engage in higher levels of physical activity than the norm while still maintaining their health (think marathon runners or professional athletes).

The takeaway? Different people have different needs when it comes to physical activity. Exercise can be very healthy, but over-exercise is associated with real risks. Markers of over-exercise include: difficulty taking days off, difficulty changing the exercise routine (type, duration, and/or intensity), a predominant focus on burning calories (rather than relieving stress or having fun), and interference with other plans or responsibilities. Exercise and eating disorders has been a hot topic amongst researchers and clinicians as of late, so be on the lookout for an upcoming blog post with more information about this important subject!

Myth #3. Hospitalization is the only way to successfully treat an eating disorder.

We still have a lot to learn about how to effectively treat eating disorders, but we do know that individuals can achieve full recovery in a range of different treatment settings. For some individuals (especially those who are at a very low weight and/or purging frequently), hospitalization may be the safest, most efficient way to interrupt unhealthy behaviors, achieve medical stabilization, and re-nourish the body. For others, a less intensive option may successfully help restore health. Many individuals struggling with bulimia nervosa, for example, benefit greatly from weekly or twice-weekly outpatient cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT). Outpatient family-based therapies, in which parents or other caretakers supervise meals at home with the guidance of a therapist, are likewise often helpful for adolescents with anorexia nervosa. Our eating disorder treatment tool kit continues to expand as researchers explore new interventions that might be helpful across a range of settings—from medications that may benefit those with anorexia nervosa, to new therapies for bulimia nervosa. So, as you take the next step towards recovery, keep your options in mind—you may have more than you originally thought!

For more information on current eating disorders research at our program, please read about our latest studies, call us at 646-774-8066, or email us at edru@nyspi.columbia.edu.

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