Eating Disorder Facts and Statistics: What You Need to Know

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that involve disturbed patterns of thinking and behavior related to food, weight, and body shape. 

Around 30 million people in the U.S. (including an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men) will meet the criteria for at least one eating disorder during their lifetime. Research suggests that eating disorders are on the rise. Eating disorder prevalence rates increased from about 3.5% from 2000 to 2006 to 7.8% from 2013 to 2018.

This article will discuss eating disorders, including key facts, statistics, mortality rates, and causes.

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Eating Disorders Overview

Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening mental illnesses that involve disturbed eating behaviors. Many people with eating disorders eat too little or too much. They may also have a distorted body image, a fixation on their weight, and/or low self-esteem.

There are several different types of eating disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), including:

  • Anorexia nervosa (AN): Involves severely restricting food intake for the purpose of achieving extreme thinness.
  • Bulimia nervosa (BN): Involves episodes of binging (eating a lot of food in a short amount of time) and purging (“compensating” for binging by using laxatives, vomiting, or exercising excessively).
  • Binge eating disorder (BED): Involves repeated binging episodes and feeling out of control while overeating.
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): Involves being very selective about food intake for reasons unrelated to weight or appearance.

If left untreated, eating disorders can have serious medical consequences, such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, malnutrition, and organ damage. In some cases, they may be fatal. 

Treatment for eating disorders typically involves psychotherapy and/or medication. Residential treatment may be necessary in severe cases.

How Common Are Eating Disorders?

Eating disorders affect millions of people in the U.S. every year. The following statistics offer a snapshot of how widespread eating disorders are:

  • About 30 million American adults will have an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. 
  • An estimated 1 in 5 U.S. women will experience an eating disorder before the age of 40.
  • About 1 in 7 American men develop an eating disorder before turning 40. 

Some eating disorders are more common than others. A 2018 study found the following lifetime and 12-month prevalence rates of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder among U.S. adults:

Eating Disorder Statistics Among U.S. Adults
Eating Disorder Lifetime Prevalence Rate Annual Prevalence Rate
Anorexia nervosa 0.80% 0.05%
Bulimia nervosa 0.28% 0.14%
Binge eating disorder 0.85% 0.44%

ARFID prevalence rates are less well-known. However, some studies suggest that around 5% to 14% of children and youth in inpatient eating disorder programs and about 22.5% of children and teens in day treatment programs for eating disorders meet the diagnostic criteria for ARFID.

Eating disorders appear to have become more common in recent years. One review of worldwide data found that eating disorder diagnoses more than doubled from 2000 to 2018. This trend was consistent across different regions, age groups, and genders.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers noticed a particularly significant uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for eating disorders.

For example, the overall incidence of eating disorders among teen girls and young women rose by 15.3% in 2020 in comparison to previous years. According to a 2021 study, the number of people entering inpatient treatment for an eating disorder doubled between 2018 and 2020.

Eating Disorders by Ethnicity

Researchers have noted that eating disorder rates vary somewhat by ethnicity. These differences may be due in part to differences in risk factors, cultural influences, and socioeconomic status. 

However, access to healthcare also likely plays a role. People of color report that they are significantly less likely to be asked about eating disorder symptoms by healthcare providers. 

A 2018 study found that the overall prevalence of eating disorders was similar across different racial and ethnic groups. However, the likelihood of developing a particular eating disorder varied by ethnicity, as follows:

Eating Disorder Prevalence Rates in Different Ethnic Groups
Ethnicity Anorexia Nervosa Bulimia Nervosa Binge Eating Disorder
Black 0.0% 3.4% 6.9%
Hispanic/Latino 1.4% 7.8% 3.5%
White 0.7% 5.9% 5.4%
Asian-American 0.8% 6.2% 7.7%

Other important facts and statistics to know about racial disparities in eating disorder rates include:

  • Black teenagers are approximately 50% more likely to display symptoms of bulimia, such as binging and purging, than their White peers.
  • In comparison to White college students, Asian-American college students are about 1.5 times likelier to restrict their food intake, 1.2 times likelier to report dissatisfaction with their body, and 2.2 times likelier to exhibit purging behaviors.
  • Binge eating disorder and bulimia nervosa are the most common eating disorders among Hispanics/Latinos in the U.S.

Eating Disorders by Age and Gender

Regardless of their age, gender, weight, appearance, or socioeconomic status, anyone can develop an eating disorder. Still, anorexia and other eating disorders are especially common among younger people and women.

An estimated 1 in 4 people with an eating disorder is male. Women are about four times likelier than men to develop anorexia and three times likelier to be diagnosed with binge eating disorder.

People whose gender identity does not match the sex assigned at birth have a higher risk of being diagnosed with an eating disorder or reporting that they engage in disordered eating. Because this is a highly varied group, research is ongoing into which individuals may be more at risk.

Researchers believe that this disparity is due in part to social pressures that disproportionately affect women. In addition, many men report that they feel too ashamed to seek treatment for an eating disorder due to mental health stigma. 

Adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. Estimated annual rates of eating disorder diagnoses rise steadily throughout the teen years among Americans. The highest average annual prevalence rate is age 21 in men (7.4%) and women (10.3%). Approximately 95% of first-time eating disorder cases are diagnosed before age 25. 

Among young people, teen girls and college-aged women are disproportionately likely to develop eating disorders. Some estimates suggest that between 1 in 50 and 1 in 100 adolescent girls will develop anorexia.

Meanwhile, approximately half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys in the U.S. resort to unhealthy weight loss methods, such as extremely restrictive dieting, abusing laxatives, and exercising excessively.

Eating Disorders in Children and Teens

Eating disorders are common among children and teens. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 youth aged 11 to 17 exhibit symptoms of disordered eating patterns.

Causes of Eating Disorders and Risk Factors

Researchers haven’t identified one unifying cause for eating disorders. Instead, the interaction between a combination of factors—such as genetics, environment, and trauma—increases the likelihood of developing an eating disorder.

Risk factors for eating disorders include:

  • Family history: Some eating disorders may be passed down in families due to a combination of genetics, early childhood experiences, and/or learned behavior. Up to 50% of the estimated eating disorder risk can be attributed to genetic factors.
  • Environment: Research indicates that cultural and social factors—such as peer pressure, certain careers, and media beauty standards—play a role in the prevalence of eating disorders.
  • Personality: High rates of certain personality traits, such as perfectionism, have been noted among people with eating disorders.
  • Comorbid mental health conditions: Many people with eating disorders have other mental health conditions at the same time, such as major depressive disorder (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and substance use disorder (SUD). Around 25% to 35% of people with bulimia and 10% to 20% of people with anorexia attempt suicide at least once during their lifetime. 
  • Trauma: Around 50% of people with eating disorders have a history of childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse.

Eating Disorders and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a particularly common mental health condition among people with eating disorders. Estimates suggest that between 20% to 60% of people with an eating disorder have met the criteria for OCD at some time during their life.

What Are the Mortality Rates for Eating Disorders?

Due to associated risks such as malnutrition, heart disease, and suicide, eating disorders have some of the highest mortality rates of any mental health condition. An estimated 10,200 people die each year in the U.S. as a direct result of an eating disorder.

If left untreated, anorexia is associated with a particularly heightened risk of fatal complications. People with anorexia nervosa are about 5 to 6 times likelier to die than members of the general population.

Relative to other young adults, people with anorexia between the ages of 16 and 24 have approximately 10 times the risk of death. Meanwhile, people with bulimia or BED are about twice as likely to die in a given year in comparison to their same-aged peers.

However, treatment works to prevent many potential deaths related to eating disorder symptoms. If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, it’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible. 

One study found that current eating disorder treatments prevent about 42 deaths per 100,000 people under 40 in the U.S. The same review estimated that increasing treatment access to more people with eating disorders could prevent around 70.5 deaths for every 100,000 people before the age of 40.

Summary

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that involve disturbed patterns in how someone eats and thinks about their food intake, weight, body shape, and/or appearance. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. 

About 30 million Americans, including approximately 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men, will experience an eating disorder during their lifetime. Eating disorders appear to be on the rise, with global rates more than doubling between 2000 and 2018.

While anyone can develop eating disorders, they are especially common among teen girls and young women. Over 9 in 10 first-time eating disorder cases are diagnosed in people under 25. 

Eating disorders are also some of the deadliest mental health diagnoses. Anorexia is associated with particularly high mortality rates. People with anorexia nervosa are about 5 to 6 times more likely to die than their peers in the general population.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does social media increase eating disorders?

    Studies link using social media platforms like Instagram regularly to an increased risk of eating disorders among adolescents and young adults.

    One 2021 study found that participants who frequently compared their appearance to their social media followers were more likely to struggle with unhealthy eating patterns and low self-esteem. Young adults who said they “always” compared their appearance to others’ were 9.2 times likelier to exhibit disordered eating behaviors.

  • How many dancers have eating disorders?

    Many professional dancers, especially ballet dancers, say they feel immense pressure to be extremely thin and restrict their food intake. One systemic review and meta-analysis found that 16.4% of ballet dancers had at least one eating disorder. Four percent of ballet dancers met the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa.

  • Are eating disorders more common in athletes?

    Research suggests that professional and student athletes are more likely to develop eating disorders. Estimated eating disorder prevalence rates among athletes are up to 19%. Meanwhile, up to 45% of adolescent and adult female athletes meet the criteria for an eating disorder at some point.

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