Latest news | 09 Apr 2024

New research reveals dangerous gap in Australians’ understanding of eating disorders


Butterfly Foundation is launching a new online screening tool to help the nine in ten people not confident in spotting signs and symptoms of an eating disorder. 

  • Only 11% of Australians are confident they can recognise the signs that someone is living with an eating disorder. 
  • Less than a quarter of people have referred someone they’re concerned about to support services. 
  • Less than one in three (30%) of people affected reach out for help  [1] 
  • One in five (20%) people think that you can tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them 
  • 57% of people self-report as having at least one symptom of an eating disorder 

New figures released by Butterfly Foundation today reveal a concerning gap in Australians understanding of eating disorders, with potentially life-threatening consequences. While results show an increase in awareness of three well known eating disorders, Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa, genuine understanding remains low, with only 11% of Australians confident in spotting signs and symptoms.  

Unfortunately, the number of people living with an eating disorder continues to grow, currently estimated at 1.1 million people in Australia (up 21% since 2012 [2]), with 57% of people self-reporting to have at least one symptom of an eating disorder (up from 50% in 2020). The results also show a concerning lack of action taken to seek help.

With early intervention known to reduce the severity and duration of an eating disorder, alarmingly, less than a quarter of Australians have helped someone they’re concerned about to get support, and less than a third [3] have sought help for themselves. 

A major factor contributing to this lack of understanding and limited help-seeking is the misconceptions and stigma surrounding eating disorders. 20% of people think that people who have an eating disorder will look extremely thin or that you can tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them, and 1 in 10 agree that only young girls are affected by eating disorders, when in fact eating disorders affect people of all weights, shapes, ages, genders and backgrounds. 

2 in 5 Australians hold stigmatising views about eating disorders, for example, that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice, a sign of weakness and people could snap out of it if they wanted to – with these misconceptions highest among males and younger people.  

Limited eating disorder knowledge is not just a problem among the general public, as there is also research that shows 26% of GPs feel ‘not at all’ equipped to support people with an eating disorder, with only 15% feeling ‘well equipped’ [4.] 

Melissa a youth counsellor from Albury Woodonga, age 28, has lived experience of Atypical Anorexia and says stigma held her back from getting diagnosed“I had to fight to receive most of my eating disorder treatment due to health professionals not believing my diagnosis or dismissing my experience and only focusing on my weight. Stigma played a significant role in this challenge, particularly the stereotype and lack of education of being in a larger body and having a diagnosis of Atypical Anorexia. I often felt defeated and ignored which made me not reach out for help, where I ended up becoming more unwell. I was lucky to have found my treatment team who advocated for me until I finally found my voice.” 

Tharindu (TJ) aged 29 from Melbourne who has a background in health promotion, community development and youth health and wellbeing, says that the misconceptions and lack of awareness about eating disorders had a significant impact on his experience with anorexia, bulimia and intersecting mental health challenges. “In my experience health practitioners were missing the tools, confidence and understanding of eating disorders and body image issues, leaving me feeling as though my experience wasn’t valid enough to receive support. With the added common media framing that perpetuated the idea that only certain people can develop eating disorders, I never saw myself represented in conversations about support and recovery. Having already faced stigmatising responses to mental health care as a young man of colour and having signs and symptoms overlooked and disregarded, I know how vital it is to show that eating disorders can impact anyone and we are deserving of equitable and person-centred support.” 

To help those who are not confident in the signs or symptoms of an eating disorder, Butterfly is launching an online screening tool where individuals can take the first step by answering a series of questions and be advised whether they need to seek further support. The results can also be printed to take to a GP or other health professional to help people get the appropriate treatment.  

Dr Jim Hungerford, CEO at Butterfly Foundation says, “Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can have life threatening impacts if someone doesn’t get the support they need. That’s why Butterfly’s health promotion and education services are critical to dismantling these myths to improve help-seeking and outcomes. With growing numbers of people in Australia experiencing eating disorders, everyone needs to hear loud and clear that eating disorders do not discriminate and you can never tell if someone is unwell just by looking at them.  If you have concerns about yourself or someone you care about, Butterfly’s new online screening tool is a helpful first port of call.” 

Butterfly’s new screening tool can be accessed here:  

Read more about the new research here:    

*Verian conducted the Community Insights Report with a sample size of 3023 people, with the sample weighted to match Australian population data. 


Media Contacts  

Harriet Potter  

Butterfly Communications Manager   

Ph: 0451 837 044  


Emma Hopgood  

Edelman for Butterfly Foundation  

Ph: 0435 671 617  



 Editor and producers note  

Please include the following support line details in all media coverage of this story and refer to the Mindframe Media guidelines for safe reporting on eating disorders.  

Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact: 

  • Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE) or   
  • Eating Disorders Victoria Helpline on 1300 550 23 
  • For urgent support call Lifeline 13 11 14 


[1] Ali et al (2023): 


[3] Ali et al (2023):