9 Myth-Busting Statistics About Eating Disorders

#1: 65% of American women struggle with eating.

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A woman sits with her hands folded on a printed skirt. Eating disorder statistics show that many myt...
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Eating disorders don't just look one way, and don't just affect one kind of person. And people who don't feel like they fit the "typical" profile might avoid getting help, out of stigma or shame. That's the overwhelming message of eating disorder specialists, who tell Bustle that many different factors can influence eating disorder risk. Statistics about eating disorders show that things like race, gender, and sexuality shape the way in which eating disorders are diagnosed and treated every day.

For any kind of disordered eating, it's important to bust myths and stigmas so that people can get the help they need. "Eating disorders affect men and women across all cultures and can present at any age," Dr. Lorna Richards, MRCPsych, a psychiatrist specializing in adult eating disorders at LifeWorks, a private rehabilitation center, tells Bustle. "The risk for those sitting outside of the perceived demographic can be devastating because it prevents or delays recognition and access to treatment."

Disordered eating also has to do with more than clinical definitions. "We need to pay more attention to 'subclinical' disordered eating, because it’s extremely widespread and can be just as damaging to mental and physical health as diagnosed eating disorders," registered dietitian Christy Harrison tells Bustle. Subclinical disordered eating, she says, is any behavior that doesn't quite fit the medical definition of an eating disorder, but is still harmful — like chronic restrained eating, restricting major food groups, fasting, using laxatives to lose weight, or binge eating. The COVID-19 pandemic has also worried eating disorder specialists, who point out that food insecurity, panic buying, and restrictions around shopping have likely made some eating disorders more common.

Here are nine statistics about eating disorders that experts want you to know.


65% Of American Women Struggle With Eating

"The vast majority of American women (and likely American people) struggle with eating and body-image issues," Harrison tells Bustle. A 2008 survey conducted by SELF and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she says, found that 65% of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have some form of disordered eating. Another 10% would meet full clinical criteria for eating disorders. The COVID-19 pandemic may have also increased rates of eating disorders; a study published in International Journal of Eating Disorders in October 2020 found that people with high levels of pandemic-related anxiety were at higher risk of disordered eating patterns.

Part of the problem, experts tell Bustle, is that diagnosis can be really biased; people who have a higher weight, are non-white, older, or male are less likely to be diagnosed quickly and accurately with an eating disorder. "There is a common misperception that eating disorders are illnesses of white middle-class young women," Dr. Richards tells Bustle. That couldn't be further from the truth.


Around 25% Of People With Eating Disorders Are Male

Harrison tells Bustle that she and her colleagues have seen more and more men struggling with eating disorders over the past few years. "The gender ratio for eating disorders was previously estimated to be 1:10, but recent data suggests that around 25% of sufferers are male," Dr. Richards says. "Subclinical eating disorders may be nearly as common in men as women."

People still think that eating disorders are a "female issue," though, and that can have devastating consequences. "Men in particular experience increased stigma about suffering from a female-dominated illness and find it very difficult to open up and ask for help," Dr. Richards says. That can mean delayed diagnosis and treatment, which can lead to serious health problems.


Transgender People & Gay Men Are At Higher Risk

The LGBTQ population, especially transgender people and gay men, is more vulnerable to eating disorders than straight cisgender people, experts say. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) notes that 42% of men with an eating disorder identify as gay. A 2015 study published in Journal Of Adolescent Health of 223 U.S. universities found that transgender people in college were over four times more likely than cisgender female college students to have an eating disorder diagnosis. And a 2020 study published in Current Opinions in Psychiatry found that LGBTQ communities, particularly transgender people, are more likely to have disordered eating over the course of their lifetimes than cisgender straight people.


Disordered Eating Is More Common In Low-Income People

Income affects a person's risk of eating disorders, experts say. "Disordered eating is common in low-income people, a demographic that often gets left out of discussions about eating disorders, but shouldn’t be," Harrison tells Bustle. "The deprivation caused by food insecurity often drives binge eating and other disordered behaviors with food."

A 2017 study published in International Journal Of Eating Disorders, she says, found that 56% of low-income respondents reported binge eating, feelings of overeating, or night eating, and 17% of the people with the most severe food insecurity met clinical criteria for eating disorders. And a 2020 review published in Current Psychiatry Reports found a link between food insecurity and bulimia. If somebody doesn't know know where their next meal is coming from or can only access certain types of food, they're more likely to develop disordered eating. COVID has also likely made this worse; Harvard Health points out that unemployment and high reliance on food banks have likely exacerbated disordered eating.


Dieters Are 18 Times More Likely To Develop An Eating Disorder

Dieting in any form — whether it's intermittent fasting, cutting out carbs, or going on a juice cleanse — can significantly raise someone's risk of eating disorders. "Dieting is a significant risk factor for eating disorders, with those who report moderate dieting having a five-fold risk of developing an eating disorder," Dr. Richards tells Bustle. People who practice extreme restriction, where they cut out whole food groups and stick to intense diets for long periods, are at even greater risk, Harrison says: they're 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-dieters.


Non-White People Are Less Likely To Get Help For Eating Disorders

When it comes to eating disorder treatment, race matters. "People of color are less likely to receive help for an eating disorder," Harrison tells Bustle. It's a gap most likely related to stigma, she says. NEDA reports that while people of color are as likely as their white peers to report disordered eating, they're less likely to be asked about their symptoms by a doctor, and less likely to told that they should receive professional help if they talk about their eating behaviors.


Anorexia Has A One-In-Five Mortality Rate

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder of any kind, according to the National Institute Of Mental Health. "The mortality rate of anorexia nervosa has been estimated to be as high as 20% in some studies," Richards tells Bustle. "Young people with anorexia nervosa have 10 times the risk of dying as a result of their illness compared with their peers, and one in five deaths are through suicide."


Over 30% Of People With Insulin Dependent Diabetes Have A Form Of Disordered Eating

Type 1 diabetes is a condition where people are required to take insulin to regulate their blood sugar, and it affects 1.6 million Americans. Richards tells Bustle that a surprising amount of people with the condition also show symptoms of disordered eating. "One-third of people with insulin-dependent diabetes have disordered eating and don’t administer insulin correctly in order to lose weight," she says. "This has a significant impact on the rate of medical complications of diabetes." Research says this disorder, also called diabulimia, is a particular problem in people who are dealing with diabetes during adolescence, where concern about body image and weight can be oppressive.


Binge Eating Disorder Is More Common Than You Think

Binge eating disorder is more common than people realize, Harrison says. "As many as 30% of people seeking weight-loss treatment meet the clinical criteria for binge eating disorder," she tells Bustle. "And remember, meeting clinical criteria is rare; a far higher percentage of these folks still engage in regular, distressing episodes of binge eating, just not more than once a week for three or more months in a row." The common stereotype of eating disorders as obsession with eating as little as possible doesn't cover a huge range of disordered eating behaviors, she says. A 2020 study in Australia published in International Journal of Eating Disorders found that binge eating became more common during the COVID pandemic, both among people with diagnosed eating disorders and people with no history of it.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.

Studies cited:

Becker, C. B., Middlemass, K., Taylor, B., Johnson, C., & Gomez, F. (2017). Food insecurity and eating disorder pathology. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 50(9), 1031–1040. doi: 10.1002/eat.22735

Diemer, E. W., Grant, J. D., Munn-Chernoff, M. A., Patterson, D. A., & Duncan, A. E. (2015). Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, and Eating-Related Pathology in a National Sample of College Students. The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 57(2), 144–149. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2015.03.003

Hanlan, M. E., Griffith, J., Patel, N., & Jaser, S. S. (2013). Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating in Type 1 Diabetes: Prevalence, Screening, and Treatment Options. Current diabetes reports, 10.1007/s11892-013-0418-4. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11892-013-0418-4

Hazzard, V. M., Loth, K. A., Hooper, L., & Becker, C. B. (2020). Food Insecurity and Eating Disorders: a Review of Emerging Evidence. Current psychiatry reports, 22(12), 74.

Larrañaga, A., Docet, M. F., & García-Mayor, R. V. (2011). Disordered eating behaviors in type 1 diabetic patients. World journal of diabetes, 2(11), 189–195. doi:10.4239/wjd.v2.i11.189

Nagata, Jason M.; Ganson, Kyle T.; Austin, S. Bryn. (2020) Emerging trends in eating disorders among sexual and gender minorities. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. Vol 33 - Issue 6 - p 562-567 doi: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000645

Phillipou, A., Meyer, D., Neill, E., Tan, E. J., Toh, W. L., Van Rheenen, T. E., & Rossell, S. L. (2020). Eating and exercise behaviors in eating disorders and the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia: Initial results from the COLLATE project. The International journal of eating disorders, 53(7), 1158–1165.

Rodgers, R. F., Lombardo, C., Cerolini, S., Franko, D. L., Omori, M., Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M., Linardon, J., Courtet, P., & Guillaume, S. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on eating disorder risk and symptoms. The International journal of eating disorders, 53(7), 1166–1170.

Sweeting, H., Walker, L., MacLean, A., Patterson, C., Räisänen, U., & Hunt, K. (2015). Prevalence of eating disorders in males: a review of rates reported in academic research and UK mass media. International journal of men's health, 14(2), 10.3149/jmh.1402.86. doi:10.3149/jmh.1402.86

Touyz, S., Lacey, H. & Hay, P. Eating disorders in the time of COVID-19. J Eat Disord8, 19 (2020).

Experts cited:

Christy Harrison

Dr. Lorna Richards

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