By On June 1st, 2018

First new estimates in a decade show changing eating disorder rates

If you’ve read about eating disorders in the past 10 years or so, you’ve probably read the same set of statistics which estimate approximately 30 million people in the US live with an eating disorder. That isn’t a coincidence.

Despite how widespread eating disorders are, how dangerous they can be, and the commonly accepted notion that most estimates significantly underestimate just how widespread these disorders really are, the surprising fact is that eating disorder rates haven’t been significantly studied since 2007.

That means the estimates have not been updated since long before the release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-5, the widely used “guidebook” for clinically diagnosing mental health issues.

This changed this week, with the publishing of a new study in Biological Psychiatry which updates the outdated estimates of the prevalence of eating disorders in America.

The new study developed this new estimate using a nationally-representative sample of 36,309 adults. According to the researchers, that represents the largest national sample of US adults ever studied.

The new estimate suggests that approximately 0.8% of US adults will be affected by anorexia nervosa during their lifetime, 0.28% will be affected by bulimia nervosa, and 0.85% will be affected by binge eating disorder.

“Our study confirms that eating disorders are common, are found in both men and women and across ethnic/racial groups, occur throughout the lifespan, and are associated with impairments in psychosocial functioning,” said first author Tomoko Udo, PhD, of University at Albany, New York. Dr. Udo conducted the study alongside Carlos Grilo, PhD, of Yale University School of Medicine.

“The prevalence and impact of eating disorders continues to be underestimated in society. This definitive study should guide both research and policy development,” said John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

For the study, the researchers used data from the 2012-2013 National Epidemiologic Survey Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC-III).

Along with providing lifetime estimates of being impacted by an eating disorder, the study also found that 12-month estimates for anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder were 0.05%, 0.14%, and 0.44% respectively.

The researchers noted that while the anorexia rates were similar to what was expected from past studies, the rates of bulimia and binge eating disorder were lower than past findings.

“Many researchers and clinicians expected higher estimates than earlier studies as a result of ‘loosening’ of diagnostic criteria for eating disorders,” said Dr. Udo, referring to the changes made to criteria in the DSM-5. Udo believes more research will be needed to accurately explain these shifts, as well as the overall implications of the new estimates.

As expected, the eating disorders occurred across different age groups and were persistent, typically lasting for years. The researchers also say the findings reinforce the understanding that eating disorders can significantly interfere with normal daily activities and social relationships.

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