Do Eating Disorders Affect All Ages? Surprising Facts about EDs

August 22, 2023

Did you know that nearly 30 million people in the United States struggle with an eating disorder? It’s likely that someone you know has experienced one or more eating disorders in their lifetime. There are many preconceived notions about these common and treatable conditions, but it’s important to get the facts so you can better understand eating disorders. This article will highlight some surprising but true facts about eating disorders. Learning more about eating disorders could help you or a loved one feel more understood and ultimately receive the care you or they need for recovery. 


What is an eating disorder?

As defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an eating disorder is a condition characterized by extreme and persistent changes in eating behaviors, often accompanied by negative emotions and thoughts. Eating disorders may appear as preoccupations around relationships with eating and food, disordered eating patterns, extreme focus on body weight and body shape, and distorted body image. Eating disorders have negative impacts on physical health and mental health. Oftentimes eating disorders co-occur with other mental illnesses or psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and addiction and substance misuse disorders. Behaviors such as food restriction, compulsive exercise, purging behaviors, and binge eating commonly appear as symptoms in those experiencing eating disorders, though the behaviors accompanying an eating disorder can look many different ways. 

Anyone can develop an eating disorder regardless of gender, age, race, or demographic background. Eating disorders can appear in many ways and have varying severities depending on a wide range of social and personal risk factors such as family history, health history, and social pressures. If left undiagnosed and untreated, an eating disorder can cause severe health problems or even death. It’s important to understand eating disorders and know the facts so you or a loved one can seek support.

Eating Disorders Can Affect All Ages

It’s a commonly held belief that teens or young people are the only people to struggle with eating disorders, but eating disorders can occur at any age. The onset of restrictive eating habits and disordered behaviors around food and body image can begin as early as toddler years, during young adulthood, and well into older age. Concerningly, the rate of occurrence of eating disorders in children under the age of twelve has increased in recent years. Because body and brain development are in critical growth periods during childhood, early onset of eating disorders can have significant negative impacts that last a lifetime. Common eating disorders seen in children are:

  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID): Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder is an eating disorder causing a refusal or lack of interest in eating. Those who suffer from ARFID may avoid foods based on sensory factors and may be fixated on the consumption of particular foods. Those experiencing ARFID may have nutritional deficiencies due to their tendency to avoid particular foods. Food avoidance often starts in early childhood with lasting impacts. 
  • Pica: Pica is an eating disorder where individuals eat non-food substances such as paper, glass, clay, paint, hair, chalk, dirt, or other nutrient-deficient non-food items. Pica is a relatively rare condition seen most commonly in pregnant women and young children. However, pica can affect anyone and can lead to long-lasting health and wellness impacts if not assessed. 
  • Anorexia nervosa: Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an obsessive fear of weight gain which can lead to distorted body image and disturbances in eating behaviors. There are two subtypes of anorexia nervosa: the restricting subtype and the binge-eating/purging subtype. Those who experience the restricting subtype tend to significantly limit food intake, leading to low body weight. Those who struggle with the binge-eating/purging subtype also may restrict food intake, as well as engage in behaviors such as binge eating, self-induced vomiting, compulsive exercise, and misuse of laxatives.

Though these conditions are the most commonly diagnosed eating disorders among young children, kids under the age of 12 can experience many other kinds of eating disorders or disordered eating.


Eating disorders among the elderly are often overlooked and underestimated. Did you know that two to three percent of women 50 and older experience an eating disorder? When older adults experience eating disorders it can lead to frailty and life-threatening conditions at a much faster rate than it might affect young adults. Gastrointestinal problems, dental erosion, fatigue, and organ failure are all serious and common side effects of untreated eating disorders in older adults. Adults ages 50+ may have experienced the onset of their eating disorder at a younger age without treatment or full recovery. Others may confront an eating disorder for the first time at an older age. Regardless of the timeline, severity, or age of a person, it is critical to seek support and care when symptoms of an eating disorder arise. 

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Men Can Have Eating Disorders, Too


It’s a true fact that anyone can have an eating disorder. While conversations about eating disorders tend to focus on the significant social pressures women face regarding relationships to food and body image, it is important to understand that men and male-identifying individuals also may experience eating disorders. In fact, men account for roughly 25% of eating disorder diagnoses. Unfortunately, many men live with undiagnosed eating disorders or struggle to find treatment due to a lack of cultural and medical acknowledgement that they can experience disordered eating. 

Oftentimes, people believe an eating disorder looks like extreme thinness or excessive weight loss. However, this does not always hold true for men with eating disorders. The idealized masculine body typically trends toward bulky body types and defined muscularity. Men experiencing body image issues and eating disorders often use supplements, steroids, and exhibiting behaviors of binge eating disorder to increase their bulkiness. Binge eating disorder is a condition where people experience recurring episodes of overeating. These episodes generally take place in a rapid manner and in a short amount of time. It is also common to use purging and fasting to increase muscularity. A more recently recognized condition is muscle dysmorphia, a type of body dysmorphic disorder in which an individual fixates on body muscularity. This condition is more common in men who experience eating disorders. Those who suffer from muscle dysmorphia may spend excessive time and focus on developing an idealized male body type. 

Like many people who struggle with eating disorders, men experiencing eating disorders may also have other mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. Excessive exercise, ritualized eating habits, and substance use may also be signs that someone is experiencing an eating disorder. 

Here are some other signs and symptoms that men and male-identifying individuals may present when experiencing an eating disorder:

  • Hyperfixation on food consumption and caloric intake
  • Fixation on body weight and size
  • Strict eating habits and food restriction
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Distorted body image 
  • Frequent cycles of dieting

This is not an exhaustive list of signs and symptoms. Sometimes it can be hard to see if someone is struggling, especially if their situation does not fit the archaic stereotypes of who develops eating disorders. It is important to seek support and treatment if you or a loved one experiences these symptoms. 

OSFED (Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder) Is the Most Common Eating Disorder


Nearly half of all treated eating disorders are diagnosed as OSFED. Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder, known as OSFED, is a category of eating disorders for those with conditions that do not meet diagnostic criteria of other eating disorders. It is the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder for both adolescents and adults. A person with OSFED may exhibit many symptoms of disordered eating similar to conditions such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, but will not meet the entire criteria necessary to be diagnosed with these conditions. OSFED is a serious but treatable condition with potentially severe health impacts.

Those who are experiencing OSFED may show symptoms similar to other eating disorders. This can include disordered thoughts regarding food and eating, atypical eating behaviors, and preoccupation with body image. OSFED may also co-occur with other mental health problems. Examples of OSFED diagnoses include atypical anorexia nervosa, purging disorder, and night eating syndrome. 

The health risks associated with OSFED can be severe. Though patients experiencing OSFED may exhibit disordered behaviors to a lesser degree or at a lower frequency, the risks and dangers to one’s health remain the same. Medical complications, such as chronic gastrointestinal issues, organ dysfunction, reproductive issues, and osteoporosis are all potential outcomes of Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED). Many individuals diagnosed with OSFED also experience psychological health impacts as well. These include feelings of shame and guilt, self-harm, substance misuse and addiction, depression, and anxiety. These risks and health impacts can be minimized with the prompt professional treatment of OSFED. If you or someone you know is showing signs of OSFED, it’s important to seek help

Eating Disorders Can Be Deadly

Every eating disorder has the potential to gravely impact one’s health and can even be fatal. Eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental health conditions, with someone dying every 52 minutes as a direct result. In fact, between five percent and twenty percent of all untreated eating disorders lead to death. Those with anorexia nervosa are at a higher risk of mortality than those experiencing other eating disorders. Due to the co-occurrence of mental health conditions like depression, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among those who suffer from eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. If you or someone you love is showing signs of an eating disorder, reach out to learn more about treatment. If you or a loved one is engaging in self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, dial 988 to contact Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support. 

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Eating Disorders Are Treatable

Though eating disorders are serious health conditions with potentially severe impacts on physical and mental health, they are also diagnosable and treatable. The road to recovery can be challenging with many successes and setbacks. However, there are tools and resources to help make steps in the direction of recovery. It’s important to find the right treatment team, consisting of primary care physicians, psychiatrists, therapists, and/or dietitians. These healthcare professionals can help guide patients through the recovery process and treat the varying conditions connected to eating disorders. Eating disorder treatment options will vary based on your geographic location, insurance coverage, the type of eating disorder, the level of care needed, and many other factors. Working closely with a care team will help you find the treatment that is right for you on your journey to recovery. It’s also been found that increasing support networks of family members, friends, colleagues, and online support groups can aid in recovery. If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, it may feel daunting to imagine a life in recovery. With access to adequate treatment and support, recovery from an eating disorder is possible.

These facts about eating disorders may be surprising to you, but when we are able to better understand the lesser-known facts, signs, symptoms, and health implications of an eating disorder, we are better equipped as a community to support those who need care and support. 

Seek Help

If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder or any of the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder, you are not alone. Recovery is possible and help is available with the National Alliance for Eating Disorders.