Eating disorders have similar quality of life impacts to other common mental health disorders like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, according to new Deakin University research.
The research from Deakin's Institute for Health Transformation showed that even those who experience infrequent binge eating episodes or enforce restrictive diets – typically considered below the eating disorder 'threshold' – still reported significantly lower quality of life than peers in the general population.
Lead researcher Dr Long Le, from the Institute's Deakin Health Economics team, said this insight was critical in understanding the full burden of eating disorders, as well as identifying those who needed help.
"We looked at representative data from more than 5000 South Australians, and found 18 per cent of the sample showed symptoms associated with an eating disorder, consistent with estimated national prevalence rates," Dr Le said.
"The bulk of this number, 15 of the 18 per cent, were designated as having 'sub-threshold' eating disorders."
Study co-author Professor Phillipa Hay, Chair of Mental Health at Western Sydney University, said if these behaviours continued they could become more severe and evolve into 'threshold' eating disorders.
"It's important for clinicians and parents to recognise this, and not ignore the initial symptoms," she said.
Professor Hay said the study highlighted the significant impacts on the quality of life in those with 'avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder' a newly described feeding and eating disorder.
"And even those in our sample group who did not report any dieting, fasting or purging for weight control, but reported stress around infrequent, or less than weekly, binge eating episodes, still had a relatively impaired quality of life," she said.
"That certainly casts doubt on whether these should be regarded as 'sub-threshold' disorders, and shows we need more research into the impact of binge eating."
Dr Le said the relationship between binge eating, obesity and quality of life also needed to be more fully explored.
"We found that people with high BMI had a lower quality of life relative to those of a healthy weight, whether or not they had an eating disorder," he said.
"This is important, as the prevalence of both obesity and binge eating has been increasing significantly during the past 20 years."
Study co-author Professor Cathy Mihalopoulos, Head of Deakin Health Economics, said she hoped the data gathered as part of this study could help increase the comparability of cost-effectiveness studies into eating disorder treatment and prevention across a variety of affected sub-groups.
Today (1 November), new Medicare items were introduced effectively increasing the amount of treatment for which eligible eating disorder patients can receive a rebate, from 10 sessions to up to 60, reflecting an increase in government funding to tackle the issue.
"This is a great step forward for the effective treatment of eating disorders, which are increasing in prevalence and remain the most fatal of all mental disorders," Professor Mihalopoulos said.
'Burden and Health State Utility Values of Eating Disorders: Results from a population-based survey' was published today in the Psychological Medicine Journal, in collaboration with researchers from Western Sydney University and University of Adelaide.