New statistics from the ABS National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2020-21  

Why is this research important? 

Many Australians have experienced episodes of binge eating, and/or view their weight and/or shape to be very important to the way they think about themselves, as reported in the findings from the recently released National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing (NSMHW) 2020-21.

Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released comprehensive findings from the 2020-21 NSMHW, including prevalence of mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, affective disorders, and substance use disorders (1). This is the first NSWMHW conducted since 2007.

While the 2020-21 NSMHW did not assess the prevalence of eating disorders, survey respondents were asked two questions related to experiences of binge eating and perception of the importance of body weight and/or shape (2). Binge eating and overvaluation of body weight and/or shape are risk factors for the development of an eating disorder, and can also be symptoms of a diagnosable or diagnosed eating disorder (3), although the study did not investigate whether study respondents met criteria for a diagnosable eating disorder or had previously been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Despite this limitation, the survey results provide a valuable estimate of the number of Australians who had experienced binge eating behaviours and/or viewed their weight and/or shape as being important to how they think about themselves.

The high percentage of Australians aged 16-85 years who had experienced binge eating behaviours in their lifetime (5.1%) and/or rated their weight and/or shape as being very or extremely important to how they thought about themselves as a person (21%) (1) highlights the importance of ensuring that all Australians at risk of or experiencing an eating disorder have access to appropriate services across the stepped system of care, including prevention, early identification, initial response, treatment, and recovery support. Further surveys to ascertain the prevalence of eating disorders among the Australian population will generate a more comprehensive picture of mental ill health in Australia, supporting investment and service planning for eating disorders.”

Summary 

The below information is based on information from the ABS website, summarised by NEDC into an abstract-style format. It only reports on the findings related to the questions about episodes of binge eating and importance of weight and/or shape. The full study findings, including the complete study methodology, are available on the ABS website here

Background: 

The NSMHW is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care, as part of the Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study (2). 

Methods: 

Data for the NSMHW was collected by the ABS between December 2020 and July 2021. Households were randomly selected to participate in the study, in both urban and rural areas in all states and territories. Within each selected household, one person aged 16-85 years was randomly selected to complete the study questionnaire. The questionnaire was administered face-to-face by a trained ABS interviewer. Survey questions were based on the World Mental Health Survey Initiative version of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Composite International Diagnostic Interview (2). 

The study collected information on general health and wellbeing, a range of mental health conditions, suicidality, self-harm, disordered eating, perception of importance of weight and/or shape, and use of health and social support services.  

Study respondents were asked about experiences of binge eating in their lifetime and in the last 12 months. Binges were defined as a person eating a large amount of food (defined subjectively as more than what most people would eat in similar circumstances) during a short period (e.g., two hours), at least once a week for several months or longer, accompanied by a feeling of loss of control (2).  

Study respondents were asked to rate the importance their weight and/or shape has to the way they think about themselves as a person using the following scale: 

  • Not at all important 
  • Slightly important 
  • Moderately important 
  • Very important 
  • Extremely important (2) 

A total of 5,554 households completed the full study questionnaire (response rate of 57.1%). Using statistical techniques, the study findings from the 5,554 households were converted into estimates for the entire Australian population (2). 

Results: 

The study found that one in twenty people (5.1%, or 1.0 million) aged 16-85 years experienced binge eating in their lifetime, and that females were more than twice as likely as males to have experienced binge eating in their lifetime (7.4% compared with 3.0%) (1). In 2020-21, 2.4% of all people aged 16-85 years experienced binge eating in the last 12 months (1). 

More than one in five people (21.0%) rated their weight and/or shape as being very or extremely important to how they thought about themselves as a person, with females more likely than males to rate their weight and/or shape as being very or extremely important (24.2% compared with 17.6%) (1).  

Conclusion: 

Many Australians have experienced episodes of binge eating over the past 12 months and over their lifetime, and a high percentage of Australians viewed their weight and/or shape as being very or extremely important to how they think about themselves as a person. While females were more likely than males to have experienced episodes of binge eating and to rate their weight and/or shape as being very or extremely important to how they think about themselves, the percentage of males experiencing these concerns is also substantial.    

If you or a loved one are experiencing concerns related to body image, food or eating, it is important to reach out. Your GP is a good ‘first base’ to seek support, information and access to services.  

If you need support, please visit our Get Help page

Immediate support is available via the following services, available 24-hours, 7 days:  

Lifeline: 13 11 14  

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467  

Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636 

MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978 

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800 

 

References:  

1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Summary statistics on key mental health issues including the prevalence of mental disorders and the use of services [Internet]. Australia: ABS; 2022 [cited 2022 July 22].  

2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing methodology [Internet]. Australia: ABS; 2022 [cited 2022 July 22]. 

3. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®): American Psychiatric Pub; 2013.  

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