Ask the expert: All you need to know about eating disorders


Earlier this week Jaimi Curry, the daughter of sporting legends Lisa Curry and Grant Kenny, tragically passed away after a long battle with anorexia nervosa.

Eating disorders are one of Australia's most prevalent mental health illnesses, so we spoke to Butterfly Australia clinician Amelia Trinick to find out why so many people are suffering.

Jaimi Curry (left) tragically lost her life after a battle with eating disorders. Picture: Instagram
Jaimi Curry (left) tragically lost her life after a battle with eating disorders. Picture: Instagram


How many people experience eating disorders?

"Look, it's estimated that there's about a million Australians currently experiencing an eating disorder," Ms Trinick said.

"Generally speaking, that's about 10 per cent of the Australian population that will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. So it is quite common mental illness," she said.

What is an eating disorder?

"There are a range of different eating disorders … the ones that are more commonly known are anorexia nervosa (restrictive eating), bulimia nervosa (binge eating followed by purging) and Binge Eating Disorder (bingeing without purging)," Ms Trinick said.

"Some that are a little less well known are Other Specified Eating Disorder, that's when someone doesn't fit all the criteria for the other disorders," she said.

"We also have PICA (an illness where people eat things not considered food, such as hair) and ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder)."

"We also see a range of other presentations come through Butterfly that don't necessarily fit this criteria."

People with eating disorders often have body dysmorphia. Picture: iStock
People with eating disorders often have body dysmorphia. Picture: iStock


Is the mortality rate high?

According to The Butterfly Foundation mortality in Anorexia Nervosa is among the highest of all mental disorders in young and middle aged adults.

"The mortality rate of eating disorders in Australia is quite significant, it's quite high. And in fact, mortality is, generally speaking, higher than other psychiatric disorders," Ms Trinick said.

"There's about 20 per cent of anorexia nervosa deaths that are a result of suicide. So we have both physical and medical complications."

"Mortality rates for anorexia nervosa is among the highest of all mental disorders in young people and middle aged adults. So it's quite significant. And the mortality rates for eating disorders is between about one and a half and then estimated even up to about twelve times higher than the general population."

Do eating disorders have other mental illnesses associated with it?

"There's quite a few psychiatric comorbidities … we find a lot of coocurring illnesses such as mood or anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders and we also see for more restrictive disorders things like Oppositional Defiant Disorder," Ms Trinick said.

"We see OCD present a lot of the time for the more restrictive and bingeing cycles of disordered eating and absolutely seeing anxiety and depression is common across the spectrum of eating disorders," she said.

Do people recover?

"We know that something that does impact the rate of recovery and also the time it takes for someone to recover, is really focused around early intervention and getting support as early as possible," Ms Trinick said.

"We also know that recovery from an eating disorder for those people that it is possible for can still take a really significant amount of time. So generally, it can take approximately from those early stages, seven years of recovery. It can take a significant time for someone to even reach out to support that first time," she said.

Why do people develop eating disorders?

"There's a range of different things that we hear about. I think often what we get is people calling and wanting sort of the magic thing that triggered it, but often it's a combination of different factors that might come together and create a perfect storm," Ms Trinick said.

"So we know that there might be things like a genetic vulnerability already present to somebody. It might be some psychological factors or even just things like different personality traits like perfectionism or obsessive compulsiveness," she said.

"We also know some causes are socio-cultural influences as well. And that could play a role in the development of eating disorders. So the internalisation of beauty ideals of thinness and kind of unrealistic imagery that we get presented a lot of the time. And it really does take a combination of those factors so it's difficult to predict an eating disorder."

"Certainly with bombardment and even the commercialisation of products and images … it is becoming more just relentless, essentially. And so it can be difficult to get a break from that."

Social media influencers promoting unrealistic standards are often triggers for eating disorders.
Social media influencers promoting unrealistic standards are often triggers for eating disorders.


What do I do if I think my loved one is suffering with an eating disorder?

"So one of the first things that we try and let people know is that it can be a really daunting task, it can be quite scary so it's okay to not have all the answers and not to know exactly what to do," Ms Trinick said.

"The most important thing is just letting us the person know that you're there. If they are willing and open to talk, try not to focus too much on weight, shape or size or even eating and try to focus on the emotional changes that you're seeing," she said.

"And of course, another thing we mention every time is that if the person isn't able to have that conversation at first, which is very, very normal, just let them know that you will bring it up again with them moving forward, but not to sort of push the point in that conversation. "Give them the space to do their own processing."

What do eating disorder do to the body?

"When it comes to anorexia nervosa there might be a display of a combination of different warning signs … one of the most obvious might be rapid weight loss but we also say it's important to remember that not everyone who experiences it has to be underweight," Ms Trinick said.

"For people who menstruate that process can halt or stop completely," she said.

here are some immediate signs like faintness and dizziness and long term effects like heart issues and bone issue can be something that occurs in the long term as well," she said.

"There are psychological and behaviour signs as well, people being nervous, not able to connect with those around them and a really strong preoccupation with eating and body shape.

What causes death in people with eating disorders?

"Generally what we see most commonly, but not exclusively, something like compromised immune systems, we see things like kidney failure, osteoporosis and heart problems. And all of those things can potentially lead to fatality.," Ms Trinick said.

Are young women more likely to have eating disorders?

"I think historically, we've sort of seen it as an issue that really affects a very small part of the demographic, that is young women. And although risk factors in that particular demographic generally quite high, we know eating disorders can effect anyone across the board," Ms Trinick said.

According to the Butterfly Foundation, 15-20 per cent of those experiencing eating disorders are male.

If you are someone you know needs support, you can contact The Butterfly Foundation's helpline on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE).