Are Eating Disorders Common?

May 27, 2020

As more and more celebrities, athletes and public figures come forward to describe their battles with eating disorders it begs the question how common are eating disorders in the United States? Statistics provided by the National Eating Disorder Association estimate that approximately thirty million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. Worldwide that number is more than double.

The problem with statistics on eating disorders is they are often inaccurate. This is because many sufferers do not come forward and speak to a medical provider about their symptoms. As a result, many people who struggle each day with the symptoms associated with an eating disorder never receive a diagnosis or proper treatment. This happens for a variety of reasons. Some people who struggle with an eating disorder feel embarrassed and others experience denial or even confusion about what their symptoms indicate.

Eating disorders can vary vastly in the expression of symptoms and behaviors which means fitting someone neatly into a specific eating disorder classification can be difficult. As a result, people often struggle for an extended period to obtain a diagnosis and be able to seek treatment. This can be discouraging and often people just give up.

 Males and females

Males are often one of the least diagnosed populations of people with eating disorders. This is likely related to the presumed shame or stigma associated with admitting to an eating disorder. There is an inaccurate and far to common presumption that eating disorders are a mental health condition that only affect women. Therefore, when a male is experiencing the symptoms associated with an eating disorder, they are much less likely to seek help. For this reason, the number of men (of all ages) who have a diagnosed eating disorder or are being treated for an eating disorder is likely much higher than statistics represent.

Types of eating disorders

Before discussing the statistics associated with the various commonly diagnosed eating disorders, it may be beneficial to briefly define or describe the most common and well-known eating disorders seen in teens (and adults as well). Most eating disorders are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and personality factors. Some of the most common eating disorders include the following.

Anorexia nervosa-

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that is characterized by the individual wanting to stay obsessively thin. Common symptoms often seen in those with anorexia include low body weight (although the individual with anorexia will often think they are overweight), dehydration, low blood pressure, anxiety, irregular menstruation, delayed puberty brittle hair and nails and headache.

Bulimia nervosa-

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder where a person binges on food and then purges the food from their body. This is generally done by the through self-induced vomiting. In addition to binging and purging, common symptoms of bulimia include food aversion, hunger, anxiety, mood swings, bad breath, dental hygiene problems, esophageal inflammation, frequent weight fluctuations, irregular menstruation and poor self-esteem.

Binge eating disorder-

While this sounds similar to bulimia it is a different form of mental illness and a separate diagnosis. Binge eating disorder refers to someone eating an excessive amount of food in a short period of time, such as over a couple or hours. Unlike bulimia there is no purging involved after the food is consumed. To be classified as binge eating disorder, this form of excessive food intake must happen at least once per week over a period of three months to be formally diagnosed.


Orthorexia is an eating disorder that involves an obsessive and extreme focus on “pure” or “clean” eating. Orthoexia is not a formal eating disorder diagnosis (yet) as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) so it is difficult to obtain an accurate number of how many people have this condition.

Eating disorders statistics and facts

Below is an assortment of statistics and facts as they relate to the most common eating disorders. There are certainly other diagnosed eating disorders which are not covered in this article and they are equally as detrimental to the health of the individual who struggles with them and are not to be considered less concerning or of minimal importance.

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality (rate of death) rate of any mental illness. It is estimated that between .05 and 3.7 percent of women suffer from anorexia nervosa at some point in their lifetime. Several research studies estimate that approximately one percent of female adolescents and teens have anorexia although this number is likely higher. The average age of onset for anorexia nervosa is around the same time as puberty which means this eating disorder may provide a significant challenge to teens at a very critical time in their development. A 2003 study found that individuals with anorexia nervosa are approximately 56 times more likely to commit suicide than those who do not struggle with this disorder and teen (and young adult) women with anorexia are twelve times more likely to die (either from self-harm or from complications associated with the illness) than other females of the same age without anorexia nervosa.

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia effects approximately two to three percent of women in their lifetime. In men the most commonly reported statistics show bulimia effects approximately .05 percent of men. Bulimia is about nine times more likely to occur in women than men and is more common in young women and teens. The mortality rate associated with bulimia is approximately four percent.

Binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States and is more prevalent than both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Binge eating disorder is thought to effect approximately 3.5 to 5 percent of women and 2.0 percent of men as well as thirty to forty percent of those seeking weight loss treatments. However, as previously noted above, the accuracy of statistics for the male population is likely inaccurate due to chronic underdiagnosis. The onset of binge eating disorder is generally seen in late adolescence or in the early twenties for both males and females.

Eating disorders among certain populations

The long-standing stereotype linked to eating disorders has generally been associated with the young, white, affluent female. The more accurate assessment is that eating disorders do not know any race, gender, religious or sexual preference boundaries. Eating disorders can (and do) effect people from all parts of culture and society.


In a recent study, more than one third of female college level athletes were found to have symptoms and attitudes that may place them at risk for anorexia. There is a significant amount of pressure for athletes to perform and to maintain a specific body size and shape. These pressures, without the benefit of good information related to eating disorders can put even the most physically fit at risk.

Teen Girl - Eating Disorders - Hillcrest

Teens and College-age students

Among teens between the ages of 13 and 18, almost four percent of females and 2 percent of makes are reported to have a diagnosed eating disorder according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Also, other recent studies in the Journal of School Nursing found that almost twenty five percent of those teens misjudge their weight meaning they believe they are overweight when they are not. Teens who misjudge their weight are more likely to develop unhealthy dietary habits.


Those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community commonly struggle with eating disorders, Unfortunately, treatment resources have not always been available to them for a wide variety of reasons. Fortunately, as awareness increases the availability of resources for treatment is widening.

Statistics regarding eating disorders in this group are very inconsistent however the National Eating Disorder Association has stated that members of this population (especially teens) are thought to be at higher risk of binge eating and purging. Studies have shown the onset of these illness can occur as early as age 12 among LGBTQ+ youth. In comparison, the “normal” age of onset in the general population is one’s late teens and early twenties for binge eating disorders.

People of color

Eating disorder rates are similar among all races and ethic background however, people of color are less likely to receive treatment for an eating disorder.

Statistics on recovery

The statistics on eating disorders and recovery are, unfortunately, quite sobering; especially when you consider the sheer number of people who suffer with an eating disorder and choose not to or are unable to get help.  With treatment and proper diagnosis, sixty percent of people with an eating disorder will make a full recovery. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, twenty percent of people suffering with anorexia nervosa will prematurely die from health complications directly related to the eating disorder. These complications can include heart problems, gastrointestinal problems, and suicide. Only one in ten people who suffer from an eating disorder (not just anorexia nervosa) will seek and receive treatment. Treatment for eating disorders is the most successful when intervention is early; before many of the potential medical side effects associated with the eating disorder have begun to have an adverse impact on the individual’s health.

Inpatient treatment is often very successful for teens who struggle with eating disorders. Although there is a common fear associated with the sheer cost of inpatient treatment, many insurance companies now cover treatment for eating disorders and their associated complications. For treatment to be the most successful, it must be multifaceted. This means it must include medical care, mental health care, nutritional education, and counseling for your teen. At Hillcrest, our trained team of medical providers has many years of experience working with teens who are struggling with eating disorders. Inpatient settings are often the most successful and ongoing care after your teen completes treatment will likely be needed. At Hillcrest, we will work with your teen and your family to ensure your teen receives a personalized treatment plan for your teen both while they are here and once, they return home. If your teen is struggling with an eating disorder and you are ready to seek help reach out to Hillcrest today.