In the United States, an estimated 30 million people have an eating disorder. Throughout the world, that number may go as high as 70 million. Untreated eating disorders can lead to serious mental and physical health effects.
Anorexia nervosa, one specific type of eating disorder has the highest death rate of any mental health disorder. Some of the other most frequently diagnosed eating disorders include bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.
Eating Disorder FAQs
Here are some of the most commonly asked questions about eating disorders and their provided answers.
- Are Eating Disorders Genetic?
There’s a strong genetic component to eating disorders, but it’s not the only important factor.
It’s difficult to estimate the exact heritability of eating disorders, as they are likely a result of an interaction of many genes. However, the risk of having anorexia or bulimia is much higher in people who have a family member with an eating disorder.
Less is known about the heritability of binge eating disorder, as it’s a more recent addition to diagnosable eating disorders. However, research suggests that certain symptoms or behaviors related to eating disorders can be inherited.
Although genetics can produce a vulnerability to the development of an eating disorder, genetics alone do not guarantee that someone will develop one. Genetics can interact with other environmental or individual factors, including:
- Family stress
- Personal experiences
These factors can either increase or decrease the risk of developing an eating disorder. While there’s certainly a genetic component to eating disorders, it’s not the only risk factor.
- What Causes Eating Disorders?
There’s no simple cause of eating disorders.
Every person can have a different combination of factors that contributes to the onset of their illness. Because of this, there is no exact cause or combination of causes of eating disorders.
Despite this, it’s understood that personal, psychological, environmental and cultural factors can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder, but they are not considered ‘causes’ on their own. Some of these risk factors include:
- Female gender
- History of childhood obesity
- Substance use disorder
- Body dissatisfaction
There are some risk factors that can be changed, such as behaviors or ways of thinking, while other factors are more fixed, like genetics or past experiences. Understanding what causes an eating disorder in an individual can be very personal, and often requires time and support to identify and address.
- Is There a Cure for Eating Disorders?
There’s no single or universal cure for eating disorders, but there are many treatment options that have been linked to significant symptom improvements or even full recovery. These might include one or a combination of:
Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Refeeding therapy and dietetic counseling
- Family therapy
- Inpatient or residential rehabilitation programs
Rates of recovery also differ by eating disorder. It’s estimated that less than half of people with anorexia make a full recovery, but that approximately a third show significant improvement. Rates of recovery in bulimia range from 55-70%, and recovery tends to be highest in binge eating disorder, with 25-80% achieving remission.
Treating an eating disorder can require unlearning strongly held beliefs about one’s body and weight, repairing their relationship with food and also addressing any co-occurring mental disorders like depression or anxiety. Addressing these symptoms can take time, and people with eating disorders often have to relearn certain skills, like grocery shopping, cooking or going out to restaurants. ‘Curing’ an eating disorder isn’t simple, but recovery is possible.
- How Many Eating Disorders are There?
In the most recent update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health, Version 5 (DSM-5), there are seven main categories of eating disorders including:
- Anorexia Nervosa
- Bulimia Nervosa
- Binge Eating Disorder
- Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
- Rumination disorder
- Feeding and eating disorders not elsewhere classified
Within the feeding and eating disorders not elsewhere classified category, there are several eating disorder ‘subtypes’, including:
- Atypical anorexia nervosa
- Subthreshold bulimia nervosa
- Subthreshold binge eating disorder
- Purging disorder
- Night eating disorder
- Unspecified feeding and eating disorders
These conditions are eating disorders that don’t meet the full criteria for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, but still cause significant distress and require treatment. A diagnosis of each different eating disorder is based on key differences in symptoms.
For example, a diagnosis of anorexia includes a clear fear of weight gain and a low body mass index (BMI). In contrast, a diagnosis of bulimia includes binge eating behaviors and actions that compensate for binge eating (i.e. purging), but a diagnosis does not require a low BMI. It’s also possible that someone can experience more than one eating disorder at the same time.
- How Common Are Eating Disorders?
Overall, at least 30 million people in the U.S. have an eating disorder.
How common a specific eating disorder is depends on the type of eating disorder, age and gender.
In the U.S., rates of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder for women are 0.9%, 1.3% and 3.5%, respectively. In men, rates are slightly lower at 0.3% for anorexia, 0.5% for bulimia, and 2.0% for binge eating disorder.
There are some groups where eating disorders may be more common than in the general population. People who have experienced criticism related to their bodies, like athletes or dancers, may be at increased risk of eating disorders. Also, people who have other mental health conditions, such as depression, have an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
Although eating disorders are not overly common, people with the condition experience significant distress on a daily basis.
- Are Eating Disorders Fatal?
Eating disorders can be fatal, although this outcome is in the minority of cases. Eating disorders are associated with a risk of serious physical and mental health consequences, and in extreme cases, death.
The risk of fatality also depends on the type of eating disorder and severity of the condition. For example, the risk of mortality in anorexia is highest, followed by bulimia nervosa and eating disorders not elsewhere specified. Risk of mortality in anorexia may be highest due to extreme starvation and the chronic nature of the condition, which can impact the function and health of vital organs.
The risk of mortality can be increased if a person suffers from more than one eating disorder. Eating disorders can also lead to complications like gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, renal or metabolic disorders. These can lead to an increased risk of death. Importantly, eating disorders can also be associated with risk of suicide, which can contribute to eating disorder fatalities.
- At What Age are Eating Disorders Most Common?
Eating disorders can occur at any age, but are most common during adolescence.
Overall, eating disorders are most common and tend to appear for the first time between the ages of 16-25 years old. The average age of onset for eating disorders varies slightly depending on the type of eating disorder. For example, the age of onset for anorexia is around 15-19 years old, and females of this age make up 40% of people with anorexia. Bulimia tends to emerge slightly later, with the peak age of incidence at 16-20 years old, and binge eating disorder tends to emerge closer to the late teens to early twenties.
Although eating disorders are most likely to begin relatively early in life, in some cases they can be chronic and long-lasting. If left untreated, eating disorders can persist well into adulthood and old age. Eating disorders can also emerge later in life, and the development of binge eating disorder is most common as people age.
- Do Men Get Eating Disorders?
Yes, men do get eating disorders. Just under 3% of men will experience anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder in their lifetime.
Although eating disorders are most common in women, men can still be seriously affected by all types of eating disorders. In some cases, eating disorders may have slightly different symptoms in men. For example, body dissatisfaction in men often focuses on body fat vs. muscularity, and eating disorders in men may focus on changing body size or shape, rather than extreme thinness. The type of eating disorders that occur more regularly in men can also vary; binge eating disorder and eating disorders not otherwise specified are more common.
Eating disorders in men can be serious and distressing, but can sometimes go unnoticed, unreported or untreated. Eating disorders are often considered a ‘female disorder’, which can make it hard for men to acknowledge what they are experiencing is disordered eating. It’s important to recognize that men can also be greatly impacted by eating disorders, and that treatment is available for both men and women.