Hospital admissions for people with eating disorders have risen 84% in the last five years, with boys and young men increasingly affected, a new analysis has found.
There were 11,049 more admissions for illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia in 2020/21 than in 2015/16, reaching 24,268 admissions across England.
Admissions in children and young people rose from 3,541 to 6,713, with a 35% increase in the last year alone as the Covid pandemic hit, according to the analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
A stark rise was seen in boys and young men, from 280 hospital admissions in 2015/16 to 637 in 2020/2021.
The College has launched new guidelines to help health professionals identify people whose eating disorders have become life-threatening and get them the right care.
It said the signs that somebody is dangerously ill can be missed at GP surgeries and in A&E due to a lack of guidance and training.
Even when seriously unwell, people with eating disorders can appear to be healthy, with normal blood tests, it said.
For example, somebody with anorexia can have dangerously low levels of electrolytes like potassium that are not reflected in blood tests.
Patients with bulimia can also have severe electrolyte disturbances and stomach problems but can be a normal weight or overweight.
Dr Dasha Nicholls, who chaired the development of the new medical emergencies in eating disorders guidelines, said: “Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating don’t discriminate, and can affect people of any age and gender.
“They are mental health disorders, not a ‘lifestyle choice’, and we shouldn’t underestimate how serious they are.
“Even though anorexia nervosa is often referred to as the deadliest mental health condition, most deaths are preventable with early treatment and support.
“Full recovery is possible if spotted and treated early.”
She said there was a need to raise awareness of common eating disorders symptoms.
“Our guidance encourages healthcare professionals to spot when someone is dangerously ill, and dispel the myths surrounding them,” she said.
“They remain poorly understood with devastating consequences for thousands of patients and their families.
“If we are to stop the eating disorders epidemic in its tracks, it’s vital that this guidance reaches healthcare professionals urgently and that government backs them with the necessary resources to implement them.”
One in five deaths of people with anorexia are due to suicide, while all eating disorders see high rates of self-harm and depression.
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at the eating disorder charity Beat, welcomed the new guidance, adding: “We sadly know from the results of past inquests that insufficient training and failure to follow the previous guidance led to preventable deaths, which cannot be allowed to happen again.
“Everyone with an eating disorder deserves safe and effective treatment, regardless of the healthcare setting or specialism of their care team. We hope that this new guidance will allow frontline staff to quickly identify and safely treat those with eating disorders in all settings.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “Demand for services has increased significantly over the pandemic, and with the NHS treating a third more children and young people than it did two years ago, it is important that all healthcare professionals are supported to better understand and respond to signs that someone is seriously ill with an eating disorder.
“Parents can also find information on potential symptoms, such as binge eating, feeling guilty after eating, negative self-image, and other signs of a potential eating disorder on the NHS website, and they should not hesitate to contact the NHS if they or their child need support.”