Understand Eating Disorders in Women

Eating disorders are a type of mental illness that cause emotional and physical harm. Eating disorders impact someone’s relationship with food, body image, and exercise. 

These disorders are seen in people from various backgrounds. When it comes to gender, feminine-identifying people are more likely to struggle with an eating disorder. 

Statistics on Eating Disorders in Women

Here are some statistics on eating disorders in girls and women:

  • Women with eating disorders are typically diagnosed between ages 18 to 21 
  • Binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia are more common in females than males
  • Women tend to seek treatment for an eating disorder more than males with the same conditions
  • Eating disorders are twice as likely in females than males [1]

Overall Statistics

Types of Eating Disorders in Women

There are several different types of eating disorders. The most common eating disorders are binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa. This section will cover some information on anorexia and bulimia nervosa in women. 

Anorexia and Women

Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight. This fear leads to severe food restriction that causes someone to lose a drastic amount of weight. Overtime, anorexia leads someone to become malnourished. 

Despite the severe amount of weight loss, people with anorexia will continue to view themselves as overweight or fat. People with anorexia will base their self-esteem around their weight. 

Women are three times more likely to have anorexia than males [1].

What Percentage of US Women Have Bulimia Nervosa?

About 2% of women have bulimia [2]. Someone with bulimia struggles with cycles of binging and purging. Binge eating is when someone eats a large amount of food that most people wouldn’t eat in the same amount of time. In order to “make up” for the binge, people with bulimia will purge. Purging is an umbrella term for a few different behaviors, such as vomiting, laxative use, compulsive exercise, or fasting. 

Related Reading

Risks of Eating Disorders in Women

There are several negative consequences of eating disorders. Not only do these mental illnesses take a huge toll on someone’s emotional health, they can have significant physical consequences. This is why eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental illnesses. 

Here are some of the physical effects that can come from eating disorders in women:

  • Damage to the muscles, including the heart. This can result in heart failure
  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Stomach rupture
  • Pancreatitis
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Dental problems, due to frequent vomiting
  • Nausea 
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of the menstrual period
  • Loss of bone density, which can lead to osteoporosis 
  • Dehydration
  • Mouth or throat cancer [4] 

What Causes Eating Disorders in Females?

There isn’t one thing that causes an eating disorder. It’s usually a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors that contribute to the development of an eating disorder. 

However, there are certain risk factors that research shows increase the odds that someone will develop an eating disorder. These risk factors include:

  • Having a family member who had an eating disorder
  • History of dieting
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Perfectionism 
  • Rigid thinking patterns, for example viewing things in extremes (i.e all good or all bad)
  • Negative body image
  • History of an anxiety disorder
  • Being a victim of bullying, especially about weight
  • Lack of social support
  • Acculturation [3] 

Women’s Eating Disorder Treatment

Treatment is necessary for an eating disorder. Finding the right treatment can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. It’s important to know that treatment will be based on how severe someone’s disorder is. Here are the following treatment options:

  • Hospitalization- Hospitalization is 24/7 medical supervision and care for people whose eating disorders are so severe, they have significant medical problems. Hospitalization may include tube-feeding for people who are severely malnourished and unwilling to eat
  • Residential- Residential is also 24/7 supervision, but is less medical supervision than hospitalization. Residential is for people who are medically stable enough to not require 24/7 medical supervision, but are not stable enough or far along enough in their recovery to go home. 
  • Intensive Day Programs- Intensive day programs are treatment centers that people attend several hours per day, several days per week. These programs allow people to receive treatment and still live at home. This is an appropriate option for people who aren’t at risk for harming themselves and who can have independence without compromising their recovery.
  • Outpatient- Outpatient treatment is when someone sees a psychiatrist, therapist, or dietitian on a regular or as-needed basis. 


Regardless of which level of treatment someone receives, eating disorder treatment often involves care from multiple different professionals. An eating disorder treatment team typically involves the following people: 

  • Mental health therapist- A therapist can help someone with an eating disorder develop new coping skills and work through any unresolved emotions that drive their eating disorder. Treatment can include individual therapy, couple’s/family therapy, or group therapy.
  • Registered dietitian- A registered dietitian (RD) can help someone sort through any disordered beliefs about food that keep their eating disorder in place. A RD can also work with women with eating disorders to figure out new healthy eating behaviors to make sure their unique nutritional needs are met. 
  • Psychiatrist- Many times, people with eating disorders have other mental health conditions, like depression or anxiety, that feed into someone’s disorder. A psychiatrist might treat these mental health issues, which can make it easier for someone to recover. 
  • Doctor- A doctor may be involved to make sure someone is recovering medically from the impact of their eating disorder. For example, if someone develops an irregular heartbeat as a result of being malnourished, a doctor may continue to monitor this to make sure they recover and aren’t medically at risk. 

Each team member plays an equally important role in the recovery process. It’s very important for women seeking treatment to listen to the professional recommendations from their team. Eating disorders are serious conditions and deserve the utmost care while treating them. 


[1] National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d). Eating Disorders. Retrieved October 30th, 2021 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/eating-disorders 

[2] Office on Women’s Health. (n.d). Bulimia Nervosa. Retrieved October 30th, 2021 from https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/eating-disorders/bulimia-nervosa 

[3] National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d). Risk Factors. Retrieved October 30th, 2021 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/risk-factors 

[4] National Eating Disorders Association. (n.d). Health Consequences. Retrieved October 30th, 2021 from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences

Author: Margot Rittenhouse, MS, LPC, NCC
Page Last Reviewed and Updated By: Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC on December 6, 2021