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The alarming rise of eating disorders and how to spot the signs

Eating disorders are behavioral conditions that impact eating behavior. If you looked around a crowded theatre or sports arena, would you be able to tell how many people in the crowd have an eating disorder? Could you recognize some signs that might tip you off?

How common are eating disorders?

It might surprise you to know that worldwide, eating disorders affect at least 9% of the population, which is around 700 million people. In the U.S., it’s the same percentage, or around 28.8 million Americans.

Developed and developing nations have the same percentage of the population impacted by eating disorders, so it’s not necessarily a monetary issue. In the U.S., eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose, with 10,200 deaths each year. That’s one death related to an eating disorder every 52 minutes.

Related: How to build a healthy relationship with food

Busting the eating disorder stereotypes

In terms of body size, the thinnest people are most likely to have an eating disorder, but less than 6% of people with an eating disorder are medically diagnosed as “underweight.” In fact, larger body size is both a risk factor for developing an eating disorder and a common outcome for people who struggle with bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Most people think that the stereotypical person with an eating disorder is a young, Caucasian, moderately affluent, female teenager, and this is in fact true. For certain eating disorders, women are diagnosed 20 times more frequently than men.

However, did you know that 42% of 1st through 3rd graders want to be thinner and 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat? Those are some staggering numbers, especially for this age group.

The shaping of what is society’s version of accepted and normal starts before the teen years. When teens reach their young adult years, between 35-47% begin to engage in risky behaviors such as crash dieting, fasting, self-induced vomiting, diet pills and laxatives. It doesn’t slow down when they get to college. One survey showed that 91% of college women admitted to controlling their weight through dieting.

It is also important to note that the lower prevalence of eating disorders in people of color can be tied to factors like cultural reasons, lack of access to resources for treatment and lack of diagnosis.

The numbers are more dramatic for the LBGTQ+ community. Homosexual men are seven times more likely to report binge-eating and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual men. Transgender college students have eating disorders at around four times the rate of their counterparts. And non-binary people may restrict their eating to appear thin, consistent with the commonly accepted stereotype.

Warning signs of an eating disorder

So, what are the signs that could tip you off that someone you love may have an eating disorder? Common signs include nutritional deficiencies and behavioral changes.

Nutritional deficiencies

Nutritional deficiencies due to restrictive eating disorders can show up in many ways such as:

  • Hair falling out
  • Constant fatigue
  • Aches
  • Dry scaly skin
  • Sunken eyes
  • Lanugo (fine hairs all over the body which grow to prevent body temperature loss)
  • In women, lack of menstruation for three months

Behavioral signs

In less restrictive eating disorders, nutritional deficiencies may not be as obvious. In this case, you may see certain behaviors such as:

  • Obsession with weight
  • Feeling the need to control oneself around food
  • Exhibiting odd behaviors during or after meals, including not eating in front of others and going to the bathroom after each meal

You can find a list of symptoms and more resources here, courtesy of the National Eating Disorder Association.

What to do if you or someone you know may have an ED

Unfortunately, eating disorders are becoming more and more common. This rise can be attributed to many different factors, from stress to environmental factors such as social media “influencers” who set unrealistic—and most of the time, inauthentic—standards. It’s easy to compare ourselves to these Instagram idols, causing many people to become self-conscious about how they look, what they eat and how they live their lives in general.

Bottom line: eating disorders are all too common, and chances are you or someone close to you will experience one of these illnesses at some point. If you feel as though you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, you can call or text the National Eating Disorders helpline at 800.931.2237.

If you’re worried about a friend or family member, consider opening up an encouraging conversation to offer support and discuss resources and treatment options. Friends and family are often the most encouraging push that someone needs to seek treatment for an eating disorder.

Looking for nutrition support? Connect with a registered dietitian today.

This article was written by dietetic interns Kinsley Cantrell, Alma Celis, Katie Greer and Kristin Fogt.

The alarming rise of eating disorders and how to spot the signs