More than one in three adults (34%) in the UK, who gave an answer, could not name any signs or symptoms of eating disorders, according to a survey conducted by YouGov.
The eating disorder charity Beat, which commissioned the research, links low awareness of the early signs with delayed treatment and increased risk of the illness becoming severe and enduring.
These results are unveiled to mark the beginning of Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW), as Beat calls on the Government and NHS to extend their focus on early intervention, supporting measures to increase awareness of the early signs and symptoms of eating disorders.
18% said they ‘did not know’, any signs or symptoms, 14% listed an eating disorder diagnosis like ‘bulimia’ or ‘anorexia’ rather than a sign or symptom and 1% gave an incorrect answer.
The survey, that polled over 2,000 adults in the UK, also found that, of respondents who gave a correct answer, they were twice as likely to list weight loss or being thin (62%) as a sign over any other.
In fact, many people affected by eating disorders will remain at a normal weight, or even gain weight and for those who do lose weight, it is a physical sign which will appear once the mental illness is ingrained.
The lack of awareness about this complex mental health issue was further highlighted by the fact that, on average, of those who gave a correct answer, people could only list three signs and symptoms out of a potential 68 identified by Beat and 79% were not able to name a psychological symptom, which usually appear first, such as low confidence and self-esteem and a distorted perception of weight or shape.
The results confirm research conducted by Beat last year: not knowing how to spot the signs of eating disorders early is one of the main factors that leads to sufferers facing a three-and-a-half-year delay between falling ill and starting treatment.
Beat believes that more needs to be done to encourage people to get help and support faster. For this reason, the charity is calling on the Government and NHS to promote the importance of spotting the early signs and symptoms of eating disorders.
Beat Chief Executive Andrew Radford said: “This research has showed us that in the UK many people still do not know how to identify an eating disorder in its early stages.
“These results are worrying because we know lack of awareness can stop sufferers getting the treatment they desperately need as soon as possible.
“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and when people are treated quickly after falling ill, they are much more likely to have a fast and sustained recovery. Today, we are asking that the Government and NHS invest in measures to increase awareness of the early signs and symptoms, heightened awareness will not only improve outcomes for those suffering but also prove cost effective for the services treating patients.”