Eating disorders typically emerge a whole lot sooner than most people think. Here are some revealing facts and statistics about eating disorders among children and teens:
Fact: Eating Disorders typically emerge in childhood & early adolescence
In the overwhelming majority of cases, eating disorders will first emerge sometime between the ages of 9 and 16. Many first pick up the habit in junior high, though it’s becoming more common for elementary school age children to struggle with these disorders, and it’s not unheard of to find them in kids as young as 6 or 7. Only a small percentage of those diagnosed with an eating disorder developed the condition as an adult. For most everyone else, it’s a childhood disorder that they continue to struggle with well into adulthood.
Fact: Boys can develop eating disorders too
While the overwhelming majority of those with eating disorders are female, it’s estimated that anywhere from 5% to 15% of those with anorexia or bulimia are male, and these numbers are growing. One study of 7th and 8th grade boys in Australia found that 45% of boys had engaged in risky ways to control weight in the prior 12 months, such as skipping meals or compulsively exercising, which could set them up to fall into an eating disorder. (Jargon, 2021) As obesity rates continue to climb, more boys are likely to resort to anorexia or bulimia in response. As for binge eating, 35% of those affected are boys.
Fact: It’s not always about food or weight
Although weight and body image play a big part in most eating disorders, these conditions can have a strong psychological component as well. Anorexia in particular can be as much about control, perfectionism, or dealing with emotional pain as it is about trying to lose weight.
Fact: Not every youth with an eating disorder looks as if they’re starving
Many people presume that any child with an eating disorder will look like a starving Ethiopian. This isn’t always the case. While anorexics tend to be quite skinny, many with bulimia have body weights that are indistinguishable from anyone else. (Arkowitz & Lllienfeld, 2015) They may even be overweight. It’s also important to note that by the time a child becomes visibly malnourished, their disease has already progressed to advanced stages. So you can’t use the way a child looks as a barometer of whether or not they might have an eating disorder.
Statistics on eating disorders in children & teens
1. It’s estimated that 13% of young women will experience a diagnosable eating disorder during their lifetime, or around 1 in every 8 girls.(Stice et al., 2013)
2. Eating disorders are one of the most common conditions seen among youth accessing mental health services. (NCCMH, 2015)
3. The most common diagnosis is for eating disorder-NOS (not otherwise specified), diagnosed in between 2% and 5% of all women and girls. (Hay, 2008) This suggests that most people with an eating disorder don’t fit the standard diagnostic criteria, or that these conditions are being overdiagnosed in people who are bordering the line of a full-blown disorder.
Statistics on anorexia in children & teens
1. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly 1 in every 25 girls will become anorexic at some point during their life.
2. Only around 30% of those with anorexia nervosa fully recover, and around 70 young women and girls die from the disease each year. (Reddy, 7-30-2019; Thompson & Hickey, 2008, p. 49)
Statistics on bulimia in children & teens
1. As many as 1 in 25 girls will develop bulimia during their lifetime, and many more dabble with the behavior, purging food in an attempt to lose weight. For this reason, it’s often hard to get accurate prevalence numbers on the condition.
2. Another study estimates that 1% of the general population has bulimia.* (Bushnell et al., 1998)
Statistics on binge eating in children & teens
1. Studies indicate around 2.1% of people (1.7% of men and 2.5% of women) meet the diagnosis for binge eating disorder. (Hudson, Pope & Kessler, 2007)
Because eating disorders are overwhelmingly seen in the young, and primarily among girls and women, this can distort the statistics. A general population survey that finds a 1% rate among the general population may translate into 2% or 3% of females 9 to 30. So a lot of the statistics you get depends on the group being studied.