What is an Eating Disorder?

Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses; they are not a lifestyle choice or a diet gone ‘too far’.

The facts

Eating disorders are serious, complex and potentially life-threatening mental illnesses. They are characterised by disturbances in behaviours, thoughts and attitudes to food, eating, and body weight or shape. Eating disorders have detrimental impacts upon a person’s life and result in serious medical, psychiatric and psychosocial consequences.

Eating disorders are common and increasing in prevalence. There is a lifetime estimated prevalence of 8.4% for women and 2.2% for men.1

Eating disorders do not discriminate and can occur in people of any age, weight, size, shape, gender identity, sexuality, cultural background or socioeconomic group.

Long-term impacts

Eating disorders are associated with serious medical and psychological complications.

A person with an eating disorder may experience long-term impairment to social and functional roles, and the impact may include psychiatric and behavioural problems, medical complications, social isolation, disability and an increased risk of death as a result of medical complications or suicide. Suicide is a major cause of mortality for people with eating disorders. Suicide is up to 31 times more likely to occur for someone with anorexia nervosa and 7.5 times higher for someone with bulimia nervosa than the general population.2

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. The impact may lead to caregiver stress, loss of family income, disruption to family relationships and a high suicide risk.


The mortality rate for people with eating disorders is up to six times higher than that for people without eating disorders. The increased risk of premature death exists for all types of eating disorders, however people living with anorexia nervosa have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric conditions due to both psychological and physiological complications.3

Classification of eating disorders

Eating disorders are classified into different types, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Fifth Edition. Classifications are made based on the presenting symptoms and how often these occur, and include:


1.Galmiche M, Déchelotte P, Lambert G, Tavolacci MP. Prevalence of eating disorders over the 2000–2018 period: a systematic literature review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2019;109(5):1402-13.
2. Preti A, Rocchi MBL, Sisti D, Camboni M, Miotto P. A comprehensive meta‐analysis of the risk of suicide in eating disorders. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2011;124(1):6-17.
3. Arcelus J, Mitchell AJ, Wales J, Nielsen S. Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders: a meta-analysis of 36 studies. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(7):724-31.


See also

Eating Disorders in Australia

Approximately one million Australians are living with an eating disorder in any given year; that is, 4% of the population. 1
Many more people experience disordered eating (i. e.


Who is Affected?

Eating disorders can occur in people of all ages and genders, across all socioeconomic groups, and from any cultural background. Approximately one million Australians are living with an eating disorder in any given year; that is, 4% of the population. (1)
Many more people experience disordered eating (i. e.


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