Shocking Statistics: Anorexia is rare, dieting is not

As I head to my third day of attending the National Eating Disorder Association Annual Conference I’m reflecting on the amazing experiences I had yesterday through a wide variety of sessions. I learned what Facebook and Instagram are doing to help prevent and address eating disorders. I took a creative writing workshop where I wrote haikus, a mission statement and stanzas. I attended my favorite session of the entire conference, a deep dive into the father/daughter relationship and it’s role in eating disorders… there was not a dry eye in the room. Hearing the personal experience of Don Blackwell, whose daughter suffered very severe anorexia, was one of the most validating and cathartic experiences I’ve ever had. I need a bit more reflection and time to write about that one.

Another session that I was riveted by was one by Norman Kim, PhD and national director of program development for Reasons Eating Disorder Center and Center for Change. His talk was on the co-occurrence of eating disorders and anxiety. It was a breakout for clinicians, but since I love learning about the psychological and neurobiological facets of anorexia I attended anyway. The history and statistics he discussed were fascinating, in the way that eating disorders are incredibly complex and also in contemplating how the field can have such extreme cold hard facts and still, people think eating disorders are a choice, that they are happening more frequently, that they only happen to rich white girls who want to look like models, and the many other myths that prevent these illnesses from getting the attention and research they deserve.

Here are some of the statistics that stood out to me:

  1. The striking rarity of anorexia in a culture marked with the extra-ordinary pervasiveness of dieting. Only 0.9% of women in the U.S. develop anorexia nervosa. That’s less than 1% of the population. Really think about how rare that is. At the same time the dieting industry in the U.S. alone is a $60 billion industry. That’s higher than the entire GDP of Ireland. Let that sink in. We spend more on dieting than Ireland does on all gross domestic product. There is a huge discrepancy between the amount of money we spend as Americans on weight loss and the amount of people who develop anorexia.
  2. Genes are more important than environment on the development of eating disorders, but they interact. Have you ever been on a diet and absolutely loved it? I’m guessing the answer is no. Has a diet ever provided you comfort, relief and safety? Again, guessing no on that one. Anorexia is incredibly genetically loaded, 74% of anorexia nervosa can be tied to genetics. If you have a relative with an eating disorder you are 10-20x more likely to have one. Eating disorders are not a choice.
  3. The mortality rate of eating disorders is 12x higher than the death rate of ALL causes of deaths for females age 15-24. This is suspected to be lower than the actual rate because many deaths are not labeled as eating disorders even though that’s the cause. Instead you’ll see something like heart failure listed as the COD.
  4. Young women need help. 42% of 1st-third grade girls want to be thinner. First grade, god help us. 81% of 10 year old girls are afraid of being fat. More than 60% of high school girls diet. We need to stop telling young girls that their worth depends on their appearance and that their bodies are the main way to get power. In a society where women still get paid 0.74 cents to the man’s dollar, politically and socially women are oppressed. We are taught our bodies determine our worth, our success and are our most powerful tool to use to achieve status we otherwise can not earn because we are female.

Two other statements from Kim really struck me, “There are now many cancers you would rather have than an eating disorder because the rate of survival is higher.” Kim also describe that question that really hits home when interviewing his patients, “At what age can you remember thinking there is something really wrong with me? I don’t fit.” Both of these made my whole body tense up. My mother died of cancer and I beat something that is more deathly than most cancers. Even more than that, his questions to patients is verbatim what I can vividly recall thinking when I was 12 years old. There is something genuinely wrong with me, like really truly wrong with who I am.

Please spread these facts if you were moved or surprised by them. I know I was.



2 thoughts on “Shocking Statistics: Anorexia is rare, dieting is not

  1. Karen, I am finding your blog very informative and enlightening, Thank you! I would love to hear more about the father/daughter dynamics and what role it plays in eating disorders.


  2. Part of the solution is learning to love yourself. Appreciating the uniqueness and worth of yourself. Not comparing yourself to others but seeing your worth no matter what. You are valuable no matter what your weight!


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