1 in 6 adults in England has an eating disorder - here are the signs to look out for

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 one in six adults in England possibly have an eating disorder, including 28 per cent of women aged 16 to 24.

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According to the study, there are several factors that could make people more likely to say that they had disordered eating, including deprivation, being obese or overweight, smoking or suffering mental health problems.

The study found that 16 per cent of adults in 2019 (19 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men) screened positive for a possible eating disorder. The findings are around double of that to the comparable figures in a 2007 survey, which estimated that just six per cent of adults had a possible eating disorder.

The report characterises an eating disorder as a number of things, such as “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 purging after eating.”

‘Eating disorders crisis’

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.”

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.”

Signs to look out for

The key thing to understand about eating disorders is that anyone can have one - there’s no specific way a person who has an eating disorder looks.

But there are warning signs that you can look out for. The NHS says to keep an eye out for the following:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Lying about how much and when they have eaten, or how much they weigh
  • Eating a lot of food very fast
  • Going to the bathroom a lot after eating, often returning looking flushed
  • Excessively or obsessively exercising
  • Avoiding eating with others
  • Cutting food into small pieces or eating very slowly
  • Wearing loose or baggy clothes to hide their weight loss

If you’re worried about a friend or family member, it can be difficult to voice your concerns.

Eating disorder charity Beat says, “Often people with eating disorders deny or don’t realise there’s a problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ill.

“Eating disorders thrive on secrecy, and countless people who are in recovery agree that breaking the silence is the right thing to do, even if they didn’t feel that way at the time.

“The sooner someone can get treatment, the greater their chance of a full and sustained recovery.”

Beat offers support for friendly and families of those with eating disorders, and those struggling with an eating disorder themselves. You can find out more on the Beat website.