4 out of 5 teens with eating disorders go untreated
Eating disorders are frequently treated like a rare disease. Most people assume they will never know anyone living with anorexia or bulimia. The truth is they are wrong. Almost everyone in the United States knows someone who struggles with an eating disorder, but few talk about it. Even fewer seek treatment.
In the US alone, approximately 30 million men and women live with eating disorders according to the National Eating Disorders Association. The disorders are so common that more than half of teenage girls and almost one-third of teenage boys report significant eating disorder signs and symptoms.
Unfortunately, a new study published in Contemporary Pediatrics shows the vast majority of these teenagers do not receive treatment. Based on data collected from a national sample of teenagers, only 20% of teens with eating disorders receive treatment. That means 80% secretly live with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or another dangerous eating disorder without professional support or rehabilitation.
Lauren Forrest, the lead author of the study and a graduate assistant in the Department of Psychology at Miami University in Oxford Ohio, says that the findings surprised even her.
“The findings highlighted how important it is to study individuals with eating disorders who have and have not sought treatment, so that we can be sure that the field’s knowledge about eating disorders isn’t based primarily on the subset of folks who are seeking treatment,” Forrest says. “Although this study didn’t assess what might have been preventing adolescents from seeking treatment for their eating disorders, the findings provide some ideas.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly in light of the belief that girls are almost twice as likely to live with an eating disorder compared to their male counterparts, the study showed teenage girls were also twice as likely to seek treatment. However, Forrest suggests both statistics could represent a larger misunderstanding of how eating disorders affect both sexes.
“Parents and healthcare professionals may be less likely to recognize eating disorders in boys—and boys may therefore be less likely to seek treatment—because of the misconception that eating disorders only affect girls,” Forrest says. “We know that eating disorders affect females and males, and while the female-to-male sex ratio among treatment-seeking samples is 10:1, data from community samples indicate that the sex ratio may be much smaller, such as 2-3:1. So it’s not that males aren’t developing eating disorders; males are less likely to seek treatment for their eating disorders.”
Additionally, Forrest explains that eating disorders often look very different in males, which could cause the condition to be regularly overlooked by even trained medical professionals.
“Parents and healthcare professionals may be less likely to recognize eating disorders in boys and men because of differences in eating disorder symptoms. Eating disorders are often thought of as being marked by a desire for thinness, and this is often true for females,” Forrest says.
“However, males appear to have stronger desires for muscularity and leanness as compared with thinness. Given this, parents or pediatricians may query adolescents or patients about desires for thinness but may not query about desires for muscularity or leanness, so certain symptoms may therefore be missed. Based on the study’s findings, the biggest ways parents and pediatricians may be able to help is to recognize that eating disorders affect a heterogeneous group of people, including girls and boys,” she says.
Overall, the findings only confirm what was already strongly suspected about people living with eating disorders. Past estimates have indicated as little as 10% of people with eating disorders ever seek treatment, and Forrest and colleague’s research shows these estimates were not far off.
However, the study authors believe studies like this will eventually help improve treatment rate for people with eating disorders. They conclude, “with wider recognition that there’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ eating disorder presentation, we may all be able to better recognize and treat eating disorders.”