How Many People in the UK have an Eating Disorder?

How Many People in the UK have an Eating Disorder?

There is a lack of data detailing how many people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder.

Although the Department of Health provides hospital episode statistics, these only include those affected by eating disorders who are in inpatient NHS treatment.

These figures therefore leave out all those who have not come forward, have not been diagnosed, are receiving private treatment, or are being treated as an outpatient or in the community.

Beat continue to request that the Department of Health conducts reliable studies to provide them with these vital statistics.

The most accurate figures Beat are aware of are those from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence.

These suggest that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, of which around 11% are male. However, more recent research from the NHS information centre showed that up to 6.4% of adults displayed signs of an eating disorder (Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, 2007).

This survey also showed that a quarter of those showing signs of an eating disorder were male, a figure much higher than previous studies had suggested.

It is estimated that of those with eating disorders:

  • 10% of sufferers are anorexic
  • 40% are bulimic
  • the rest fall into the EDNOS category, including those with binge eating disorder

The hospital episode statistics do give an indication of regional figures, and differences between sexes and age-ranges, but as explained above these statistics only describe a small part of the problem.

At what age do people develop eating disorders?

Although many eating disorders develop during adolescence, it is not at all unusual for people to develop eating disorders earlier or later in life.

In fact, we are aware of cases of anorexia nervosa in children as young as 6, and some research reports cases developing in women in their 70’s. What we do know is that outside of the stereotypical age bracket, people are less likely to be appropriately diagnosed due to a lack of understanding and awareness of eating disorders in these age groups.

Can men get eating disorders?

Yes. Reports vary, but many estimate that males make up anywhere from 10% to a quarter of sufferers.

As with older and younger patients, males with eating disorders may be less likely to be diagnosed due to a lack of awareness, or may be less likely to come forward due to a perceived stigma attached to eating disorders in general and specifically to men with eating disorders.

What is the average duration of an eating disorder?

Due to a lack of sufficient evidence, it is difficult to say exactly how long eating disorders last for on average.

Research carried out in Australia suggests that the average duration of anorexia nervosa is 8 years, and of bulimia nervosa 5 years. However, we also know from research into severe and enduring eating disorders that these illnesses can last for many years, having a debilitating effect on the sufferers and their families.

The research suggests that the earlier treatment is sought, the better the sufferer’s chance of recovery.

Is it possible to recover from an eating disorder?

Yes. Beat are lucky enough to work with some very inspirational people, and have heard some very uplifting stories of recovery.

Reviews of the research into recovery suggest that around 46% of anorexia nervosa patients fully recover, with a third improving, and 20% remaining chronically ill (Steinhausen, 2002).

Similar research into bulimia suggests that around 45% of sufferers make a full recovery, 27% improve considerably, and 23% suffer chronically (Steinhausen & Weber, 2009).

Beat are not aware of any studies that examine recovery rates in binge-eating disorder. Their view is that eating disorders can and will be beaten.

How devastating are eating disorders?

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, from medical complications associated with the illness as well as suicide. Research has found that 20% of anorexia sufferers will die prematurely from their illness.

Bulimia is also associated with severe medical complications, and binge eating disorder sufferers often experience the medical complications associated with obesity. In every case, eating disorders severely affect the quality of life of the sufferer and those that care for them.

How should eating disorder sufferers seek help?

The first port of call for a sufferer should always be their GP. The Beat helplines are available for support and information, and can give people suggestions for how to approach their doctor.

Do eating disorders run in families?

Multiple factors contribute to the development of an eating disorder, but research suggests that genetics do play a role in this.

Some research has found that female relatives of anorexia sufferers were 11.4 times more likely to suffer from anorexia compared to relatives of unaffected participants. For female relatives of those with bulimia, the likelihood of developing bulimia was 3.7 times that of those with unaffected relatives.

This and other research does suggest a link between family members, although it is not yet totally clear how much of this influence is genetic and how much is due to environmental factors. What we do know is that many other factors also affect the development of an eating disorder.

How can you tell if someone has an eating disorder?

You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. While it is true that some sufferers of anorexia are severely emaciated, some are not, and the majority of eating disorder sufferers do not have anorexia.

Those suffering from bulimia may be within the normal weight range or may be overweight, while those with binge eating disorder are often overweight.

Eating disorders can only be diagnosed by a clinician. However, the SCOFF screening tool, developed by Professor John Morgan at Leeds Partnerships NHS Foundation Trust, can indicate a possible eating disorder. A score of two or more positive answers is a positive screen for an eating disorder.

SCOFF questionnaire:

Do you ever make yourself Sick because you feel uncomfortably full?

Do you worry you have lost Control over how much you eat?

Have you recently lost more than One stone in a three month period?

Do you believe yourself to be Fat when others say you are too thin?

Would you say that Food dominates your life?

What is a healthy weight?

A healthy weight will depend on the age and height of an individual. The diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa include the refusal to maintain, or to reach, 85% of the expected body weight for someone of that age and height.

Sometimes people refer to body mass index (BMI) to assess whether someone is of a healthy weight. Specific BMI charts can also be referred to, to determine whether an individual’s BMI is healthy for their age and height.

In general, a BMI below 17.5 is seen as indicative of anorexia nervosa, whereas the ideal BMI is anywhere between 18.5 and 24.9, and those over a BMI of 25 are classed as overweight.

Where can I find out more?

You may find the following links useful:

National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines

Institute of Psychiatry Eating Disorders Research page

Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (2007)

For information on Pica

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How Many People in the UK have an Eating Disorder?

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