Nearly half of all Americans will try to lose weight in any given year. And since almost 72% of Americans are obese or overweight, we often see this desire to slim down as a healthy choice.
But that’s not always the case.
Sometimes, the urge to be supermodel thin, fit into a size zero, or appreciate the reflection looking back at you in the mirror go a few steps too far.
You no longer eat calories solely to nourish your body.
Your relationship with food becomes a love-hate vice that you can’t seem to get out of — eating may mean getting “fat” and comes with a whirlwind of shame for allowing yourself nourishment.
Eating disorders are increasingly common in the 21st century.
Keep reading to learn about 15 shocking statistics on eating disorders in America.
Table of Contents
The Frequency of Eating Disorders
- Between 10% and 15% of Americans have a severe eating disorder.
- Throughout their lifetime, about 10 million men and 20 million women in America experienced an eating disorder.
- Somebody dies from an eating disorder every 62 minutes — or about 23 eating disorder-related deaths per day.
- Most people with an eating disorder (about 86%) will begin showing signs and symptoms by the time they’re 20 years old.
- Bulimia impacts about 0.5% of men and 1.5% of women at some point in their lifetime.
Upwards of 30 million people in America have faced an eating disorder at some point.
But that number is probably far higher since eating disorders often go unnoticed and are battled secretly behind closed doors.
The real question is: Why?
Why do so many Americans struggle with their body image to the point of disordered eating?
There’s no single cause of eating disorders — but the following reasons may help to explain why 15% of Americans will face one at some point:
- Low body image (what you see in the mirror isn’t accurate)
- External pressure (either direct or perceived; including from parents)
- Athletic performance (wrestling, running, gymnastics, dance)
- Pressure from the media (or even social media influencers)
- Mental health issues (anxiety or depression)
For years, the belief was that movies, television, and magazines triggered low body image and a desire to be “like them.” But nowadays, social media seems to be a growing culprit.
Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter allow teens to compare themselves to the overly-edited photos of their peers and favorite influencers. Meanwhile, self-conscious young people are defining their beauty by the number of likes they receive on a selfie.
And it certainly doesn’t help that influencers are always peddling “quick fixes” to weight issues … like those “magic” weight loss teas that are nothing more than laxatives.
Rather than encouraging a healthier diet or exercise regimen, the internet shows young people that losing weight is quick and easy — so long as you take shortcuts.
- Of all people facing anorexia, nearly 95% are female.
- About 0.5-3.7% of all women will experience anorexia nervosa during their lives, with 1% of cases appearing in adolescent females.
- Of 9,282 Americans asked about eating disorders, 0.3% of men and 0.9% of women reported having anorexia at some point in their lives.
Anorexia nervosa is perhaps the most misunderstood eating disorder out there. There’s a widespread belief that if you have anorexia, you simply don’t eat.
If that were the case, there wouldn’t be long haulers who struggle with this disorder for years or even decades without reprieve. Plus, the human body cannot survive much longer than 30-40 days without food.
Think of anorexia nervosa as a severe restriction of food — but not a complete restriction.
Many struggling with anorexia consume fewer than 1000 calories a day, fast for several days at a time, or obsess about eating “healthy” foods with few calories (like salads).
But anorexia nervosa is an all-encompassing eating disorder that goes well past a person’s eating habits. A person may eat normally around other people, but weigh themselves several times per day, take laxatives to encourage further weight loss, or exercise excessively.
However, this self-starvation to trigger quick weight loss is a paradox of sorts.
Weight loss may occur rapidly initially. But it can also slow your metabolism, and the weight you’re losing may come in the form of muscle-wasting.
The lack of nutritional intake can take a toll on nearly every organ system within your body. Heart conditions, weak bones, and gastrointestinal problems aren’t uncommon side effects.
Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
- Binge eating disorder has the highest case rate among all eating disorders in America, with 2% of men, 3.5% of women, and up to 40% of those pursuing weight loss “fixes” meeting the diagnosis criteria.
- About 2.8% of all Americans will face binge eating disorder at some point, and 43% of those impacted by BED will seek professional treatment.
- Up to 2% of men and 3.5% of women will experience binge eating disorder.
Anorexia and bulimia are two of the most well-known eating disorders in America, which raises the false belief that eating disorders always pertain to weight loss.
As it turns out, they don’t.
When you have binge eating disorder, you may feel like you have an insatiable desire to eat without the sensation of hunger — an addiction of sorts.
Instead of eating two slices of pizza in a single sitting and feeling satiated after, you may scarf down an entire pizza to the point of a stomach ache … and still crave more.
The glaring side effect of binge eating disorder is an immense caloric intake. Rather than the standard 2,000-3,000 calories a day, multiple binges a day can have you eating 5,000-10,000.
Many with this disorder gain an average of 15-20 pounds in a year.
Plus, the foods people binge tend to be loaded with sugar, salt, fat, and cholesterol. So unlike anorexia and bulimia, where your body isn’t getting enough of each nutrient, you’re likely overdoing it — you may increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
In other words, binge eating disorder isn’t just a harmless knack for eating your favorite foods in large quantities. It’s more like an unfulfilled desire to eat, eat, eat for psychological reasons.
It’s an eating disorder because it’s disordered eating — eating in excess and not stopping once you feel “full” is considered “atypical.”
Statistics on Eating Disorders in Women
- Of all female athletes participating in aesthetic sports — like ballet, gymnastics, or figure skating — nearly 42% will practice disordered eating.
- Out of 496 adolescent females surveyed, around 5.2% could accurately be diagnosed with binge eating disorder, bulimia, or anorexia.
- About 13.1% of women aged 50 and over have an eating disorder.
- Nearly 4 in 5 people struggling with bulimia are women.
- Only about 10% of anorexia and bulimia cases impact males.
There are stringent societal standards that both men and women feel the need to “live up to.”
For men, fitting in means being muscular, masculine, and having little body fat. While nobody says that men don’t develop eating disorders or as severely as women, women face these disorders at far more extraordinary rates.
Once again… why?
- Thin has always been “in,” at least since the 1990s — the celebrities getting the front cover of a magazine or a lead role in a movie needs a certain amount of “sex appeal.”
- The sooner a woman hits puberty, the sooner she’ll stop growing — shorter statures hold weight differently, and even a few extra pounds may be extremely noticeable.
- There’s an ongoing desire to fit in and be beautiful — this sometimes begins as soon as elementary school, which is scary to think about.
Girls face both internal and external pressures to be “perfect” before they even reach middle school. And the craving to be thin shed a few pounds, or fit in doesn’t fade as girls get older.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account eating disorders that develop after a traumatic experience or alongside other mental health concerns.
Eating disorders impact adolescent females at unusually high rates, whether that’s due to the influence of social media, peer pressure to look a certain way, or an internal desire to be thin.
Here’s what the research shows.
Nearly 3% of all teenaged girls aged 13 to 18 will receive an eating disorder diagnosis — far higher than their male counterparts.
Adolescent girls are more likely to face bulimia as they continue into young adulthood. Young girls make up about 80% of all bulimia cases.
Meanwhile, 25% of anorexia cases in children impact boys, highlighting the clear gender gap.
Right now … about 0.5% of women (or 1 in 200) are struggling with an anorexia diagnosis, and around 2-3% of women (or 2-3 in 100) are facing bulimia.
Another 10% of college-aged women either have an eating disorder or are nearing a point of disordered eating — 5.1% of these cases are reportedly bulimia.
Up to 4.2% of women will develop bulimia nervosa at some point during their lifetime.
Of the nearly 28.8 million Americans suffering from eating disorders, a shocking majority (about 20 million) are women and girls.
While the rates of eating disorders in America are concerningly high, body dissatisfaction around the globe has triggered climbing rates in other countries — specifically in Asia.
For example, Singapore has seen a dramatic rise in eating disorder cases since the 90s, with 91.3% of all instances impacting women.
Not far behind are places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Pakistan.
There are a few explanations for these increasing rates of eating disorders: Westernization of Asian countries, an increase in media consumption, and a changing food supply.
Eating disorders don’t discriminate. And not all people who suffer from anorexia or bulimia are frail, thin, or outspoken about their condition.
Chances are, at least one person you know is quietly struggling with one.
If you believe someone you love is battling an eating disorder, approach the topic delicately and with empathy.
Don’t bring home their favorite foods to convince them to eat — given their poor relationship with food, this can be severely anxiety-inducing or impair your relationship.
Let them know that you’ll be a beacon of support. Ask what you can do to help, and avoid topics of conversation relating to food or weight.
Most importantly, gently encourage your loved one to seek professional help and don’t give them ultimatums (i.e., get treatment or else).
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call:
- (800) 931-2237 (National Eating Disorders Association Helpline)
- (630) 577-1330 (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders)
- (800) 950-6264 (National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline)
- (800) 662-4357 (SAMHSA National Helpline)