The Costs of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders and socioeconomic status

By Joseph Jacob

Personal observations have led me to conclude that the media’s portrayal of a person with an eating disorder is a young, Caucasian female from the upper-end of the wealth spectrum. These sentiments are not exclusive to me, but are shared among many others (“Stereotyped Beliefs”). However, conflicting data makes it difficult to conclude whether an actual correlation exists between the prevalence of eating disorders and socioeconomic status—making this topic an interesting one for further analysis.

One journal writes that 80-85% of anorexia nervosa cases are young women (ages 12-25) from middle and upper socio-economic status (Wozniak). Several studies from past decades also found an association between eating disorders and higher social class (Se-ember). These results go hand-in-hand with the previously stated stereotype that eating disorders are more common among those of wealth.

However, a recent review from Vanderbilt University delves more deep into the age-old studies, finding several flaws in their approaches used to collect data. For example, the review discusses how the “myth” that eating disorders are more prevalent in people of higher socioeconomics is due to the fact that patients from wealthier classes are more likely to spend money on treatments and counseling (Se-ember). Thus, they are more likely to reach out to professionals unlike those of lower classes who cannot afford to do the same (Se-ember). Additionally, more recent studies conclude that no significant relationship exists between eating disorders and wealth—contradicting the results of the older studies (Se-ember). Interestingly, a modern study also found that bulimia is more common in individuals from lower socioeconomics (Se-ember).

With these results it is safe to assume that eating disorders are not exclusive to any socioeconomic class. Therefore, because of the breadth of individuals who are facing eating disorders, it is very important not to linger on the idea that only certain types of people are subject to this illness. The stereotype that women of higher socioeconomic stature are far more likely to acquire eating disorders is both false and dangerous because it can be detrimental to those who fit the stereotype and to those who do not. Because, those who fit the stereotype may not seek out help due to the fear of being judged as a stereotype. As well, those who don’t fit the predetermined mold of those with eating disorders may neglect the seriousness of their illness as they may think, “I don’t have bulimia because I’m not rich,” or “I couldn’t be anorexic because I’m not a white female.”

Costs of Eating Disorders

The great lengths to which people go in order to become or remain thin can certainly be costly to one’s health. Eating disorders can also hinder finances, in terms of dollars and cents. Very little research exists on the economic strain of eating disorders in the United States. However, a recent study in Australia found that the socio-economic impact of eating disorders was almost $70 billion Australian dollars (equivalent to about 61 billion U.S. dollars) in 2012 (“NEDC E-Bulletin”). This large number is a product of health system costs, productivity costs, and “burden of disease” costs which accumulate because of the “health loss due to a disease that remains after treatment, rehabilitation or prevention efforts of the health system and society generally” (“NEDC E-Bulletin”).

Currently, there are 913,000 individuals with eating disorders in Australia—significantly less than the number of Americans with eating disorders (“NEDC E-Bulletin”). Although this approximation is crude as we do not account for numerous variables between the U.S. and Australia, there are 24 million people in America with eating disorders and consequently, the economic impact of eating disorders is likely greater than in Australia. More research in this area could elucidate the exact costs of the disease in the United States. However, it is likely that the amount of money that goes towards eating disorders in the U.S. will exceed that of Australia.

The enormous economic impact of eating disorders undoubtedly signifies the severity of the condition. Overcoming the disorder is complicated, and it is not something one can simply “grow out of.” Rather, professional intervention is often necessary in addition to support from family and friends.


“NEDC E-Bulletin.” NEDC. NEDC, Feb. 2013. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.

Se-ember Suswam, Saanyol. “Health Psychology Home Page.” Health Psychology Home Page.

Vanderbilt University, 6 May 2010. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.

“Stereotyped Beliefs about Eating Disorders May Keep Some Sufferers Silent.” Recovery Ranch. The Ranch, n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.

 Wozniak, Greta, Maria Rekleiti, and Zoe Roupa. “Contribution of Social and Family Factors in Anorexia Nervosa.” Health Science Journal 6.2 (2012): n. pag. Apr. 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2014.

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