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Medical Misinformation in the Media: Is Anorexia on the Rise?

Are eating disorders on the rise? One widely cited statistic claims so but falters under scrutiny. Here is a case study of flawed information presented by a prominent eating disorder information organization.

When completing my master’s degree in science and the public (through the Center for Inquiry and SUNY-Buffalo), I chose eating disorder misinformation as the subject of my thesis. This was important to me for several reasons, including that it involved several of my longstanding interests such as myths and misinformation (a typical skeptical subject); eating disorders (a subject I first became involved with when helping an ex-girlfriend struggle with bulimia); and the news media (the subject of my 2003 book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us).

I wanted to understand and explain the processes by which valid scientific information about these important health disorders got translated—and often mistranslated—between clinical researchers and the public, mediated by eating disorder information clearinghouses (such as the National Eating Disorder Association), news journalists, and activist filmmakers.

Misinformation about eating disorders is not like misinformation about a car’s gas mileage or the weather. Eating disorders are mental illnesses with potentially lethal consequences. Sufferers and their loved ones deserve accurate, up-to-date information about the diseases, but upon closer inspection, trusted sources of information often turn out to be not so trustworthy. This important topic has received little or no attention in the mainstream media and, to the best of my knowledge, in academia. Part of this may be because the problem of eating disorder misinformation is multidisciplinary and includes journalism, public education, media literacy, science literacy, medicine, and psychology. Here I discuss one case study of flawed and misleading information about eating disorders presented by one of the largest and most prominent eating disorders information clearinghouses, the National Eating Disorders Association.

A brief overview of anorexia is helpful. Anorexia is diagnosed using criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ofMental Disorders, issued by the American Psychiatric Association. They are: refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height; intense fear of gaining weight; disturbance in the way one’s body weight or shape is experienced (especially undue concern of body weight on self-evaluation); and amenorrhea (lack of normal menstrual cycles).

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