January 24th, 2024
In recent years, there has been huge concern about the ever-growing rates of eating disorders across various demographics. These complex conditions, characterised by severe disturbances in eating behaviours and related thoughts and emotions, have far-reaching impacts on both physical and mental health and can lead to potentially fatal consequences.
But why are eating disorders on the rise? And what steps can be taken to reverse this alarming trend?
This blog aims to delve into the current landscape of eating disorders to try and answer these questions. It will look at the causes of these awful conditions, factors that may be contributing to their prevalence and how to get help to those who need it.
Understanding eating disorders
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions that manifest through unhealthy eating behaviours. They are characterised by an obsessive focus on weight, body shape and food and often coexist with other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. There are countless different disordered eating conditions with more research needed to identify and classify them, but the most common and best understood include:
Perhaps the most well-known eating disorder, anorexia, is characterised by weight loss, an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Individuals with anorexia often restrict the amount of food they consume and view themselves as overweight, even though they may be dangerously thin.
Involves repeated binge eating followed by behaviours known as “purging” such as forced vomiting, taking laxatives or excessive exercise to compensate for the overeating.
Now the most common eating disorder (22% of all cases are now BED), binge eating disorder manifests as recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, a feeling of loss of control during the binge and experiencing shame or guilt afterwards. While bulimia also involves binge eating episodes, sufferers of BED do not engage in purging behaviours to counter the binge eating.
Evidence of Increasing Prevalence
Various data indicate a concerning rise in the prevalence of eating disorders. Figures from NHS England show that the number of children and young people seeking treatment for eating disorders has risen dramatically since 2016, with almost 12,000 starting treatment between 2022-2023. Worryingly, the 2022-2023 numbers are an estimate due to a cyber security issue that affected the NHS computer systems and is actually thought to be far lower than the true figures.
Graph courtesy of Children’s Commissioner showing NHS England figures, 2023
This rise mirrors global figures where worldwide eating disorder prevalence more than doubled from 3.4% to 7.8% between 2000 and 2018, with the figure standing around 9% today. In the UK alone, there are thought to be around 1.25 million people in the UK with an eating disorder, costing the NHS almost £10 billion a year.
What is driving the increased rates?
To make sense of these rises, it is critical to understand the multitude of factors that increase the risk of eating disorders:
Issues such as low self-esteem, perfectionism and an intense fear of weight gain as well as mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, are all commonly associated with the development of eating disorders.
This psychological aspect is complex and multifaceted; emotional trauma, such as childhood abuse or bullying, can significantly increase the risk of developing an eating disorder, which is partly why young people are most at risk.
If we look at the rise in young people seeking eating disorder treatment in the UK, there are a few possible psychological hypotheses. Social media has exploded in the past decade, and while it has the potential to bring people together, cyberbullying is also a major issue which could be driving anxiety and depression, which can both be triggers for disordered eating.
Research has long suggested a hereditary component to eating disorders where the conditions are more prevalent in those with a family history of the conditions. In simple statistical terms, as eating disorder rates have increased over recent decades, more children are likely to be born into families with a history of eating disorders. Tragically, this could be passing eating disorder risk down to a whole new generation, reflected in exponentially rising rates.
Sociocultural factors play a significant role in the rise of eating disorders. The pervasive influence of media and social media propagates unrealistic body standards, often glorifying thinness and certain body types. Social media, in particular Instagram, inundates us with images of fit, beautiful people presented as the ideal.
Not only do many of the models, influencers and celebrities that we idolise have the time and money to eat and work out in ways that are not possible for the majority of people, but many of the images are photoshopped, so do not even give a true representation of the person. Despite this, comparisons between ourselves and these seemingly perfect role models can create huge insecurities, driving extreme eating behaviour to try and live up to these realistic expectations.
The rise of TikTok’s popularity could also be a factor, with the platform coming under constant criticism for exposing young people to potentially harmful content. For instance, one New York Times article found that 13-year-olds received content that encouraged both eating disorders and self-harm within 30 minutes of joining the platform. At such an impressionable age and with the algorithms of platforms like TikTok feeding constant messaging like this, the outcomes could be potentially catastrophic.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the psychological pressure that lockdown and isolation put on people, particularly young people who were unable to go to school or meet friends, could also be a possible cause. The rate of mental health disorders rose dramatically during the pandemic, particularly among young people whose education and social lives were hugely affected.
As explained above, mental health is the most significant driving factor in eating disorder development. When we look at the data, we can see that the number of young people starting treatment for eating disorders has risen sharply since 2019-2020. This was the start of the pandemic and the resulting lockdown, potentially reflecting the impact that COVID-19 and its mental health impacts have had on eating disorder rates.
Modern lifestyle and dietary changes
The rise in eating disorders could also be attributed to the fast-paced nature of modern lifestyles, characterised by increased work pressures and changing dietary habits. The availability and convenience of processed foods, coupled with the prevalence of dieting trends, have all contributed to unhealthy eating patterns that were unheard of in the UK only fifty years ago.
Nowadays, the most convenient, most readily available and often cheapest food is fast food. The cost of living crisis in the UK has seen the cost of groceries rise sharply, and the pressure of making ends meet means that people have less and less time to cook. Fast food delivery, Uber Eats and countless takeaways can all bring food to our doorsteps and tables in a matter of minutes, the vast majority of which is less healthy and nutritious than home-cooked meals.
The proliferation of unhealthy options is thought to be a major factor in the astonishing rise of binge eating disorder. While anorexia and bulimia were the most common eating disorders for decades, as noted above, binge eating disorder now affects more people in the UK than those conditions combined. Fast food provides an ever-available source of food for bingeing, which is likely part of the reason for ever-rising obesity-related diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes.
The health risks of eating disorders
Eating disorders are not just about food; they come with significant physical and mental health risks. Physically, these disorders can lead to severe consequences such as malnutrition, heart complications, gastrointestinal problems, obesity, diabetes and, in severe cases, death. The psychological impact is equally profound, often resulting in anxiety, depression and a severely distorted body image.
The longer an eating disorder goes untreated, the more severe these health risks become, so it is crucial to recognise that these conditions are serious and potentially life-threatening illnesses that require appropriate medical and psychological intervention.
The role of professional help
Acknowledging the need for professional help is a critical step in the journey towards eating disorder recovery. Treatment for eating disorders often requires a comprehensive approach, including medical care, nutritional counselling and psychotherapy.
Facilities like UKAT’s Banbury Lodge offer specialised eating disorder treatment programmes that provide a supportive environment where individuals can work towards recovery. At Banbury Lodge, these include anorexia nervosa treatment, bulimia treatment, binge eating disorder treatment and treatment for a wide range of other less-known conditions. This treatment is tailored to the individual to address each individual’s unique needs, which is essential for effective recovery.
While organisations like UKAT have helped many people into successful eating disorder recovery, the data shows that more needs to be done. Individuals, countries and the global community must learn to recognise the multifaceted causes of eating disorders and how current trends, lifestyles and world events may be exacerbating them. While these preventative measures can help bring rates down, it is also vital that comprehensive treatment for eating disorders is available to anyone who needs them.
While suffering from an eating disorder can be a scary, isolating experience, professional eating disorder treatment can be incredibly effective. If you are struggling and need help, reach out to UKAT today. We have helped many people reclaim their lives from eating disorders and we are ready to guide you to a happier, healthier future.
(Click here to see works cited)
- Beat Eating Disorders. “Statistics for Journalists – Beat.” Beat Eating Disorders, 2024, https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/media-centre/eating-disorder-statistics/. Accessed 24 January 2024.
- Children’s Commissioner. “Young people with eating disorders in England on the rise.” Children’s Commissioner, 1 August 2023, https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/blog/young-people-with-eating-disorders-in-england-on-the-rise/. Accessed 24 January 2024.
- Maheshwari, Sapna. “TikTok Appears to Push Harmful Posts to Young Users, Researchers Say.” The New York Times, 14 December 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/14/business/tiktok-safety-teens-eating-disorders-self-harm.html. Accessed 24 January 2024.
- NHS England. “NHS England » Children and young people’s eating disorders programme.” NHS England, 2022, https://www.england.nhs.uk/mental-health/cyp/eating-disorders/. Accessed 24 January 2024.
- OHSU. “Why are eating disorders on the rise?” OHSU, 2023, https://www.ohsu.edu/womens-health/why-are-eating-disorders-rise. Accessed 24 January 2024.