More than one-in-four young women have possible eating disorder, study finds

A person stands on weighing scales
The most common types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating. Credit: PA

More than one-in-four young women in England have a possible eating disorder, a new study has found.

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 annual Health Survey for England report has found.

The data also showed that one-in-six adults have a potential 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.

For the first time, the report asked adults about eating and thought patterns which may indicate an eating disorder.

More than 8,200 people were questioned.

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.

It is thought social media could have influenced the rise in eating disorders in recent years. Credit: PA

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.

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.

The report also found that the proportion of adults with diagnosed diabetes trebled between 1994 and 2019. Credit: PA

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”.

She added: “I think there could be something to do with unrealistic body expectation and social media but we certainly don’t have the data from the Health Survey to support that.”

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.