Just under one in five women in England has a “possible eating disorder”, research suggests.
More than 8,000 adults completed NHS Digital’s Health Survey for England in 2019.
Of the female participants, 19% “screened positive for a possible eating disorder when questioned on their relationship with food”.
This is compared to around one in eight (13%) men.
A possible eating disorder was defined as having an unhealthy attitude towards food, whether it be eating too much or too little, obsessing over weight, or having strict habits around meals.
The survey, which involved an in-person interview and nurse visit, was completed by thousands of people over 16.
The participants were asked whether they had lost more than one stone (14lb) over a three month period.
The NHS’s 12-week weight loss plan recommends a “calorie limit” of 1,900 kcal a day for men and 1,400 kcal for women to “help you lose weight at a safe rate of 0.5kg to 1kg (1lb to 2lb) each week”.
The survey participants were also asked whether they had ever made themselves vomit when feeling uncomfortably full, if they worried they had lost control around food and whether they believed themselves to be overweight despite others insisting they were too thin.
Finally, the participants were asked whether they agreed food dominated their life.
A score of two or more translated as a “positive screening for a possible eating disorder”.
The team behind the survey stressed this is not the same as an official diagnosis, which varies between types of the disorders.
The results are therefore likely an overestimate of eating disorders’ prevalence, added the scientists.
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The results suggest women under 35 were most likely to have a possible eating disorder, which affected more than a quarter (28%) of those between 16 and 24.
A similar proportion (27%) of those aged 25 to 34 showed comparable red flags.
Among the men, the risk was highest for those between 25 and 34, where just under one in five (19%) showed signs of a possible eating disorder.
The risk then declined for both sexes with age.
“These figures are shocking and highlight that eating disorders may be an even bigger issue than previously thought,” said Andrew Radford, chief executive of the eating disorder charity Beat.
“They clearly show stronger action is needed to ensure everyone with, or at risk of, an eating disorder gets the support and treatment they need.
“It is essential services are significantly expanded so anyone affected, from any diagnosis, can get the help they need at the very earliest opportunity.”
Eating disorder symptoms and the support available
The most common types of eating disorders include anorexia; when a person keeps their weight as low as possible by under-eating or over-exercising.
Bulimia is also relatively common, defined as someone binge eating before making themselves vomit, taking laxatives, restricting their diet or over-exercising.
Binge eating disorder may also cause someone to lose control over their food intake, resulting in them over-eating and then feeling guilty or upset.
Symptoms for any eating disorder often involve people obsessively thinking about their weight or body shape.
They may also avoid socialising if food is involved, go to the toilet after eating, lie about their calorie intake, cut food into small pieces and eat it overly fast or slow, or wear baggy clothes to hide their dramatic weight loss.
An insufficient calorie intake may cause a patient to feel dizzy, tired or cold.
As well as being underweight for their age and size, female patients may also stop getting their period.
People who are concerned they may have an eating disorder should see their GP as soon as possible, who may refer them to a specialist.
If worried about someone else, encourage them to see a GP, offering to go with them to the appointment.
Treatment tends to involve some form of therapy.
Beat has advisers available on its adult helpline 0808 801 0677 and youth helpline 0808 801 0711; open every day from 9am to 4pm midweek, and 4pm to 8pm on the weekends and bank holidays.
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