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Silhouette of person eating

COVID-19 plunged the world into disarray, but one of the least anticipated impacts in the UK was that cases of eating disorders rose, with the charity Beat receiving 300% more calls to its helpline during the pandemic than previously.

Soaring calls for help came as recent research found that, from March 2020 onwards, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia were 42% higher than would be expected for teenaged girls aged 13-16, and 32% higher for those aged 17-19.

Concerns have been raised about inequitable access to care, with children from wealthier backgrounds more likely to be diagnosed, for example. And GPs have warned that young people with eating disorders - forced to endure long waits for treatment - are ending up in A&E, as NHS eating disorder services are overwhelmed by the surge in cases arising during and post-covid.

Whilst eating disorders often develop during adolescence, it would be mistaken to think of these conditions as affecting only teenagers and young adults. It is not unusual for people to begin to experience an eating disorder earlier or later in life – from as young as six to as old as 70.

Dr Anna Lavis - Associate Professor in Medical Anthropology, University of Birmingham

More than 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder – whether binge eating disorder, bulimia, anorexia, other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED), or avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) - and yet only a small proportion of those living with these conditions access or receive treatment. Left undiagnosed and untreated all can be lethal, with anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

To have the best chance of recovery, it is vital that people with eating disorders have access to specialist treatment at the earliest opportunity; increasing demand for underfunded services will mean people miss out on support when they need it most.

Whilst eating disorders often develop during adolescence, it would be mistaken to think of these conditions as affecting only teenagers and young adults. It is not unusual for people to begin to experience an eating disorder earlier or later in life – from as young as six to as old as 70. Indeed, people are less likely to receive a diagnosis or treatment because there is a lack of understanding and awareness of eating disorders in these age groups.

In addition, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eating Disorders recently highlighted significant gaps in knowledge about the experiences and needs of a wide range of people with eating disorders, specifically those living with other mental and physical health conditions, people with certain eating disorder diagnoses, and across various social and cultural groups.

These knowledge gaps create barriers to care and disparities in outcomes, as well as fundamentally undermining our ability to develop effective strategies to spare future generations.

Addressing them requires two key things: firstly, research priorities need to be set and research undertaken in collaboration with people with lived experience. Secondly, there is a need to understand how socio-cultural contexts and social and mental health inequalities impact experiences, access to services and outcomes.

All of which make our new research programme at the University of Birmingham so important as we bring an anthropological approach to understanding the lived experience of people with eating disorders.

Our project has been awarded funding from more than £4 million of new research money to understand and help treat people in the UK who are affected by eating disorders. By working in collaboration with people with lived experience, especially those who have been largely unheard in eating disorders research to date, we will create a new socio-cultural strategy for research, treatment and prevention.

Backed by joint funding from Medical Research Foundation, Medical Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, Arts and Humanities Research Council and National Institute for Health and Care Research, we will draw together a blueprint that we believe will help to shape key health policy decisions that need to be made.

That is why this funding is so important – it will allow us to work with people with eating disorders to undertake research that makes a real and sustainable difference now and into the future.