Anyone can be affected by an eating disorder. The media often portrays the people affected as young, white, rich, and female, but we see people of all ages, ethnicities, income and genders.
A report commissioned by Beat estimated that more than 1.25 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder. This could be an underestimation, as people are often reluctant to seek help due to the stigma attached to mental health issues.
Around 1 in 250 women and 1 in 2,000 men will experience anorexia nervosa at some point. The condition usually develops around the age of 16 or 17.
Bulimia is around two to three times more common than anorexia nervosa, and 90% of people with the condition are female. It usually develops around the age of 18 or 19.
Binge eating affects males and females equally and usually appears later in life, between the ages of 30 and 40. As it’s difficult to precisely define binge eating, it’s not clear how widespread it is, but it’s estimated to affect around 5% of the adult population.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of weight stigma (bias or discrimination related to size), with higher weight children being 63% more likely to experience bullying.
We know that children who experience weight based bullying or teasing are more likely to diet or to try to control their weight in other ways. Dieting and body dissatisfaction are risk factors foreating disorders.
In one recent U.K. study of 16-year-old girls, 40.7% had some form of disordered eating behaviour (fasting, purging, or binge eating), 11.3% at a level compatible with a eating disorder diagnosis. Another study of 5-year old girls found that 34% were already restricting their food intake.
And this is not a problem specific to girls; the eating disorder charity BEAT estimates that 11% of those diagnosed with an eating disorder identify as male.
These statistics aren’t surprising, considering that in our current culture we are so afraid of “obesity” that parents are engaging in weight-related talk with children as young as two-years old. Recent studies show us that, where a parent is critical of a child’s weight, however well-meaning, the child may be more likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and their body.
This isn’t happening on a small scale or in isolated cases – it’s estimated that 40% of parents have encouraged their children to diet. This is counter-productive given that body dissatisfaction and dieting are not only predictors of disordered eating, but of long-term weight gain.
Although unintended, campaigns and policies that focus on body size and weight, rather than health & well-being more broadly, contribute to weight stigma. Weight stigma has increased by at least 66% since the 1990s – far more than can be accounted for by the increase in body weight over the same timeframe. Weight-related stigma and discrimination is endemic in our society – 88% of people in a higher weight category who responded to a recent All Party Parliamentary Group survey reported having been stigmatised because of their size. Their experiences included bullying, teasing, missed job opportunities and being socially excluded by family and friends. Levels of weight bias in health professionals are particularly concerning – assumptions are made and conversations can be insensitive, leading to shame and healthcare avoidance.
The World Health Organisation outlined the consequences of weight stigma in their report ‘Weight bias and obesity stigma: considerations for the WHO European Region’. These include:
- poor body image and body dissatisfaction
- low self-esteem and self-confidence
- feelings of worthlessness and loneliness
- suicidal thoughts and acts
- depression, anxiety and other psychological disorders
- maladaptive eating patterns (disordered eating and eating disorders)
- avoidance of physical activity
- stress-induced pathophysiology
- avoidance of medical care