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Eating Disorders in Australia

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Eating disorders are estimated to affect approximately 9% of the Australian population.

A person with an eating disorder may experience long term impairment to social and functional roles and the impact may include psychiatric and behavioural effects, medical complications, social isolation, disability and an increased risk of death.

The impact of an eating disorder is not only felt by the individual, but often by that person’s entire family or circle of support. For families, the impact may include caregiver stress, loss of family income, disruption to family relationships and a high suicide risk.

While estimates of the incidence of eating disorders vary between countries and studies, there is agreement that eating disorders, disordered eating and body image issues have increased worldwide over the last 30 years.

Research conducted with young people in 2010 on behalf of the NEDC indicated that:

  • most young people know at least one other young person who they think might have an eating disorder
  • 84.3% of respondents said they know one person who may have an eating disorder
  • 62.8% said they know up to five people who may have an eating disorder

These estimates do not take into consideration the frequent under-reporting and under-treatment of eating disorders.

Visit the Knowledge Hub for the latest research on eating disorders.

Eating disorders and mortality rates

All eating disorders come with severe medical complications and increased mortality rates. The risk of premature death is increased for people with all types of eating disorders.

The mortality rate for people with eating disorders is the highest of all psychiatric illnesses and over 12 times that seen in people without eating disorders”

Eating disorders and suicide

The risk of premature death in people with eating disorders relates in part to medical complications associated with the disorder; however suicide has also been identified as a major cause of death in people with eating disorders.

  • Research shows that 1 in 5 individuals with Anorexia Nervosa who died prematurely had committed suicide
  • Research on suicide in people with Bulimia Nervosa and OSFED is less available; however, suicide attempts have been identified in people with Bulimia Nervosa.

Eating disorders and adolescents

While eating disorders can occur in people of all ages, adolescence represents a peak period of onset.

  • Eating disorders represent the third most common chronic illness for young females
  • Eating disorders represent the second leading cause of mental disorder disability for young females
  • Adolescents with diabetes may have a 2.4-fold higher risk of developing an eating disorder
  • Adolescent girls who diet at a severe level are 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder within 6 months. This risk increases to a 1 in 5 chance over 12 months.

Studies of body dissatisfaction in adolescence have found varying but consistently high levels:

  • 70% of adolescent girls have body dissatisfaction
  • Body dissatisfaction is identified in the Mission Australia Youth Survey (2013) as one of the top ranked issue of concern for young people.

Eating disorders and obesity

The Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) observed that “obesity and eating disorders are not opposite ends of the same spectrum”. Obesity and eating disorders may be viewed as occurring at the same end of a spectrum with healthy beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours at one end, and problematic beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours (and ultimately syndromes) at the other end. Among the variety of weight- and eating-related problems, there are some separate and some overlapping protective, risk and maintaining factors.

  • Obesity in adolescents has increased by 75% in the past three decades
  • The development of co-morbid obesity with eating disorder behaviours has increased at a faster rate than that of either obesity or eating disorders alone.
  • Adolescent girls with obesity have high rates of disordered eating
  • One in five people with obesity also present with disordered eating, mainly in the form of binge eating, but also evident in episodes of strict dieting and purging

The long term health consequences of eating disorders

The consequences of an eating disorder are not limited to acute episodes of illness but may also be long term.

  • Research shows that only 46% of patients fully recovered from Anorexia Nervosa while 20% remained chronically ill for the long term.
  • Research into Binge Eating Disorder has identified that this disorder is more common than Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa and is at least as chronic and stable as these disorders

The financial consequences of eating disorders

The cost of care for a person with an eating disorder is substantial. Eating disorders are the 12th leading cause of mental health hospitalisation costs within Australia. The expense of treatment of an episode of Anorexia Nervosa has been reported to come second only to the cost of cardiac artery bypass surgery in the private hospital sector in Australia.

Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa are the 8th and 10th leading causes, respectively, of burden of disease and injury in females aged 15 to 24 in Australia. This is measured by disability-adjusted life years.


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