One in six adults in England has a possible eating disorder, including 28% of women aged 16 to 24, experts behind a large health study have warned.
The annual Health Survey for England asked more than 8,200 adults for the first time about eating and thought patterns which may indicate an eating disorder.
The study found that 16% of adults in 2019 (19% of women and 13% of men) screened positive for a possible disorder, including 4% who said their feelings about food interfered with their ability to work, meet personal responsibilities or enjoy a social life.
Among women, those under 35 were most likely to have a possible eating disorder (28% of those aged 16-24 and 27% of those aged 25-34).
The chances of having a disorder then dropped broadly in line with a woman’s age and was lowest among those aged 75 and over (5%).
Among men, those aged 25-34 were the most likely to suffer (19%), before also declining with age to 6% of those aged 75 and over.
Several factors made people more likely to say they had disordered eating, according to the study, including deprivation, being obese or overweight, smoking or suffering mental health problems.
The findings are around double the comparable figures in a 2007 adult psychiatric morbidity survey which estimated that just 6% of adults had a possible eating disorder.
The Health Survey for England report said the overall increase in disorders between the two studies reflects other recent increases in the number of people suffering poor mental health.
Experts also suggested that rising obesity levels may be leading to more disordered eating.
Eating disorders are characterised by eating too much or too little, being obsessed with weight or body shape, changes in mood, excessive exercise, having strict habits or routines around food or deliberate vomiting after eating.
The most common types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.
For the Health Survey for England, people were asked five questions:
– During the last year have you lost more than one stone in a three-month period?
– Have you made yourself be sick because you felt uncomfortably full?
– Did you worry you had lost control over how much you eat?
– Did you believe yourself to be fat when others said you were too thin?
– Would you say food dominates your life?
Answering yes to two or more questions was regarded as a possible eating disorder that warrants further investigation.
The survey found that similar proportions of adults who were underweight (12%), normal weight (11%) or overweight (14%) screened positive for a possible eating disorder.
But disorders were much more common in fatter people, rising to 23% among obese adults and 42% among those who were morbidly obese.
Adults with a possible eating disorder were three times more likely to have seen a GP for both mental and physical problems (18% compared with 6% of those without a disorder), and more likely to have sought help for mental health issues alone (6% compared with 3%).
Anne Conolly, research director for NatCen Social Research and one of the co-authors of the report, addressed possible reasons for the apparent rise in eating disorders since 2007.
She said there “could be some link between a rise in obesity over the last 12 years and an increase in disordered eating”.
Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “These figures point to an eating disorders crisis affecting women and men across all ages.
“We need to better understand why so many people may have an eating disorder, including looking at issues around body image, obesity and the role of social media.
“Early diagnosis and treatment can save lives”
She called for better training for all medical professionals and for NHS England to deliver waiting times targets for adults.
Andrew Radford, chief executive of the eating disorders charity Beat, said: “These figures are shocking and highlight that eating disorders may be an even bigger issue than previously thought.
“They clearly show that stronger action is needed to ensure everyone with, or at risk of, an eating disorder gets the support and treatment they need.”
The report also found that the proportion of adults with diagnosed diabetes trebled between 1994 and 2019.
Diabetes is heavily linked to obesity and, since 1994, the percentage of people diagnosed with diabetes has risen from 3% to 9% among men and from 2% to 6% among women.
When looking at both diagnosed and undiagnosed diabetes, 9% of overweight adults now have diabetes, rising to 15% of those who are obese.
Some 39% of women in the most deprived areas are obese, compared with 22% in the least deprived areas, the research also found.
When looking at trends over time, the study said obesity has increased from 13% of men and 16% of women in 1993, to 27% of men and 29% of women in 2019.
The majority of this increase occurred between 1993 and 2001, and has been gradual since then.
Meanwhile, 14% of men and 11% of women in England also have untreated high blood pressure, the report found, with the highest proportions in the North West and North East.
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