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National Nutrition Month: Eating Disorder Statistics Around the Globe

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, up to 70 million individuals around the world have been affected by at least one type of eating disorder. With the rise of globalization, the prevalence of eating disorders in non-Western countries is still lower than that of the Western countries but appears to be increasing. This is primarily due to the changing of gender roles, traditional family structure, fashion, television, and social media. However, eating disorders may vary in the presentation in different cultures, and diagnostic criteria based on standardized Western norms may not always be appropriate.

Food is a culture that unites people together regardless of their nationality, gender, political views or socioeconomic status. Each nation has its unique food, ways to prepare it and different views on daily eating habits. For example, European restaurants and supermarkets are not likely to offer supersize meals or big gulp beverages whereas African nations usually buy local produce from the outdoor markets since very few, if any, supermarkets exist, and it is not uncommon for North American countries to purchase their dinner at a drive-thru restaurant. With the increase in westernized influence across the globe, individuals around the world are more likely to view thinness as a beautiful necessity and as a result, engage in unhealthy eating behaviors that can develop into disordered eating.

Eating disorder recovery

In the early course of eating disorder recovery, individuals are taught by nutritionists and dieticians that “no food is off limits” meaning eating a balance of foods to satisfy nutritional needs and cravings is a healthier way to live. This rule is often portrayed in European countries, where diets that are more balanced in fat, protein, and carbohydrates tend to be standard fare, however even in Europe, eating disorders exist and statistics are only slightly lower than they are in the United States.

Eating disorders in Europe, Asia, and Africa

  • In Europe, the country with the highest prevalence of female anorexia is Austria (1.55 percent,) followed by France (1.42 percent). By comparison, approximately 1 in 54 or 1.84% or 5 million people in the United States have eating disorders.
  • The first culture to be studied, with increased prevalence in eating disorders, was Asia. Since the 1990’s eating attitudes and behaviors significantly increased among Asian youth (including Singapore, Hong Kong, Fiji, Pakistan, and Taiwan).
  • Recent studies on females within Universities in Pakistan (aged 16-20 years) show that there is an elevated risk for eating disorders and that 33% of college-aged women have dissatisfaction with their weight, placing this percentage at a higher risk for an eating disorder.
  • In India, prior to 2000, there was very little publications or reports of eating disorders. In the last 15 years, eating disorders have been on the rise, up to 10 times higher than in previous decades. Psychiatrists in Indian believe that with the invasion of Western television, and super slim models, young girls begin to idolize that look and it has been changing the culture of expectations of women’s body shape and size.
  • In Africa, a study was conducted with over 600 school-aged girls to determine the prevalence of eating disorders in Ghana. Of the 668 student’s studies, 10 saw self-starvation as the only cause for low weight and viewed their food restriction positively and in religious terms. These beliefs included ideas of self-control and denial of hunger but did not include concerns about body weight or shape.

Bulimia nervosa is more common than anorexia nervosa in all nations worldwide. Eating disorders across the globe suggest that eating disorders are not culture-bound or specific, but more of an ever-changing dynamic across the world. It is essential to understand how eating and body image problems present differently in different cultures and to identify potential risk factors for abnormal eating attitudes to determine the need for treatment, prevention, and education.

Center For Discovery