Did you know an estimated nine per cent of Australians are living with an eating disorder?

Eating disorders represent the third most common, chronic illness affecting our nation. According to Australia’s National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC), women are more prone to developing an eating disorder than men, with estimates revealing less than a quarter of those living with an eating disorder are male.

Yet men are increasingly being diagnosed with eating disorders, with an increase of nearly 30 per cent since the year 2000.

In fact, the NEDC cites recent studies show up to 25 per cent of people living with eating disorders are male.

“Research indicates that male athletes have an increased vulnerability to eating disorders, particularly those in sports with a greater emphasis on weight classes and aesthetic ideals such as weight lifters, wrestlers, gymnasts, dancers, jockeys and body builders. For some males, heightened concerns about muscularity may become part of an eating disorder, with distorted perceptions about muscle bulk, and /or distorted eating and exercise associated with building muscularity featuring,” says the NEDC.

“There are some suggestions that attitudes to feminine traits in men may play a part in the development of eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa.

“There appears to be a relatively high rate of eating disorders in homosexual or bisexual males, which may be related to these attitudes. However, there are more complex and multidimensional factors involved,” according to the NEDC.

Eating disorders are often confused with a physical ailment due to their association with weight loss, weight gain, induced vomiting and body image. However eating disorders are actually a mental illness, often characterised by obsessive thoughts regarding food and body weight.

SANE Australia identifies the symptoms of eating disorders as:

“Obsessive thoughts about food and body weight can change eating patterns (dieting, making excuses not to eat, avoidance of social situations involving food, going to the bathroom straight after meals), mood (feeling depressed, irritable or anxious), daily activities (not wanting to go out socially often, exercising excessively, spending a lot of time talking about appearance or weight or looking in the mirror) and appearance (wearing baggy clothes, losing or gaining weight, greasy or dry hair and skin).”

Eating disorders include:

Anorexia nervosa: Defined by the Australian Government Department of Health as a severe, very distressing and often chronic mental illness which can lead to emaciation, physical illnesses, such as osteoporosis, and disruption to emotional, social and educational development. Anorexia nervosa can be devastating. The illness has a mean duration of five-to-seven years, but for some, can prove life-long. Partial relapses and remissions are common, while some people show a steady deterioration from anorexia nervosa.

Bulimia nervosa: Eating Disorders Victoria defines bulimia nervosa as a serious psychiatric illness characterised by recurrent binge-eating episodes (the consumption of abnormally large amounts of food in a relatively short period of time), followed by compensatory behaviour (purging or over-exercising). Binge episodes are associated with a sense of a loss of control and immediately followed by feelings of guilt and shame, which leads the person to compensatory behaviour (purging), such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, over-exercising and/or the misuse of laxatives, enemas or diuretics.

Binge Eating Disorder: Defined by Eating Disorders Victoria as a psychological illness characterised by frequently eating excessive amounts of food, often when not hungry. Binges represent a distraction that allows a person to avoid thinking about the real root of their problems. Feelings of guilt, disgust and depression often follow a bingeing episode. Binge Eating Disorder is Australia’s most common eating disorder, with more than 260,000 Australian women and 160,000 men diagnosed with the disorder.

Other recognised eating disorders include:

  • Eating Disorder NOS
  • Night Eating Syndrome
  • Orthorexia
  • Pica
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome
  • Rumination
  • Nocturnal Sleep-Related Eating Disorder.

Of all the psychiatric illnesses in Australia, the premature mortality rate for those living with eating disorders is the highest, at 12 times that seen in people without eating disorders.

A large proportion of premature deaths associated with eating disorders are suicide-related. Notably, one-in-five (32 times that expected) premature deaths in people with anorexia nervosa are by suicide.

With the launch of the NSW Government’s $115 million ‘Living Well: Strategic Plan for Mental Health in Australia,’ on December 15, 2014, people living with eating disorders and other mental illnesses will be granted access to prevention and intervention strategies.

It focuses on a whole of life approach, aiming to shift the focus of mental health care from hospitals to the community.

The Butterfly Foundation has identified several elements of the plan as noteworthy for Australians living with eating disorders, including:

  • The State-wide implementation of the NSW Service Plan for People with Eating Disorders 2013-2018, with priorities including improved data collection; nurturing and disseminating a strong evidence base; workforce development; and promoting integrated and collaborative approaches.
  • Prioritising the development of community-based models of care for eating disorders from early intervention, to treatment, to recovery-focused services.
  • Ensuring adequate training in the recognition, assessment, referral pathways and treatment of eating disorders is provided to all staff in mental health services.
  • Advocating for the Commonwealth Government to fund uncapped or a minimum of 40 extra psychology sessions per calendar year for people diagnosed with an eating disorder under existing programs (such as Access to Allied Psychological Services – ATAPS – and Better Access) allowing them to access individual and group sessions.

Fortunately, eating disorders can be treated successfully. Given these illnesses affect the person both physically and psychologically, a team of allied health professionals, including psychiatrists, dieticians, psychologists and nurses can prove the best recipe for treatment success.

If you, a member of your family or friend are experiencing any symptom associated with an eating disorder, contact The Butterfly Foundation’s national support line for eating disorders on 1800 33 4673 or visit thebutterflyfoundation.org.au to learn more.