The number of Australians with eating disorders has doubled in the past decade and specialists think obesity hysteria could be to blame. New statistics released today indicate almost five per cent - one in 20 people - suffer from either binge-eating disorder or other extreme fasting and purging behaviours.
This was a leap from the two per cent recorded ten years earlier.
The survey of more than 3000 Australians captured a massive jump in the so-called “minor” eating disorders, but suggested rates of the most severe conditions, anorexia and bulimia, were stable.
The results were collated from two South Australian studies from 1995 and 2005, but study leader Phillipa Hay, head of psychiatry at James Cook University, said they reflected a nationwide trend.
“We’re surprised and obviously concerned too,” said Prof Hay, who will present the unpublished data at a national psychiatry conference on the Gold Coast today.
“This is an alarming trend which shows these problems are being felt more widely than first thought.”
The study showed the number of people with regular eating disordered behaviour - those who binged or displayed other extreme weight control problems at least weekly - had ballooned from 4.7 per cent to 11 per cent.
And the people considered to have a full-blown eating disorder grew from two per cent to 4.6 per cent over the decade.
These people had the behaviour accompanied by severe weight, shape, body image concerns and psychological disturbances.
Of particular concern, said Prof Hay, was growth in the so-called unspecified eating disorders, which include fasting, purging and the use of laxatives to control weight.
“These conditions still affect people’s lives significantly, meaning they do not function properly, miss work and cannot perform their usual roles,” she said.
Women were five times more likely to have a disorder than men, but the study found a sharp rise in males with the problems, particularly bingeing.
“It’s a clear problem when it’s spreading into groups that weren’t typically affected by weight issues,” Prof Hay said.
A large proportion of sufferers were overweight or obese, but one in ten people in the normal weight range were “extremely concerned” about body shape.
Psychiatrists speculate the results reflect increased community and media hype about obesity, dieting and body shape.
“People are getting heavier and there are a lot of messages and warnings out there are reflecting that,” Prof Hay said.
“But the obesity epidemic has to be managed very carefully because there is this whole other problem it could be creating.”
She said the answer lay in promoting healthy eating and exercise, and not extreme behaviour, to help people manage their weight positively.