Eating disorders grow more prevalent and skew younger

recent study led by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience in London, suggests that the number of people who experience eating disorders is growing, and skewing younger, with children as young as eight being diagnosed with an eating disorder. The American Psychiatric Association defines eating disorders as group of illnesses, “in which the people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. People with eating disorders typically become preoccupied with food and their body weight.” Currently, there are an estimated 30 million people living in the United States with an eating disorder. 

closeup of a person's hands cutting a single pea with a fork and knife on a dinner plate

Recently, long distance runner Mary Cain detailed years of alleged abuse at the hands of Nike Oregon Project Coach Alberto Salazar. One constant aspect of this abuse was a reported fixation on Cain’s weight. Beyond the psychological trauma this pattern of abuse produced, Cain noted the cessation of her menstrual cycle, along with a series of bone fractures, which left her unable to compete. 

Jena Shaw Tronieri, an assistant professor of psychiatry and director of Clinical Services at Penn’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, spoke recently about her work. “Broadly, we would define an eating disorder as any disturbance in eating-related behavior that is associated with significant distress, is harmful to health, or impairs functioning in other areas of life. The three eating disorders that are currently recognized by DSM-5 [Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th edition] and are most typically diagnosed in adolescence or adulthood are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

“It is important to note that not all dietary changes are signs of an eating disorder. Many people set goals to lose weight or to change their diet/exercise routine. In most cases, changes to diet and exercise that produce weight loss can be beneficial and are associated with improvements in both health and wellbeing. To tell the difference, you would need to consider whether these behaviors were associated with distress or impairment.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News.