At some point in their lives, nearly 28.8 million Americans will have an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, the most lethal of psychiatric disorders after opioid overdose. Anorexia nervosa frequently requires prolonged hospitalization for weight restoration and medical stabilization. Altogether, treating eating disorders cost the United States more than $65 billion annually. More than 10,000 Americans die each year as a direct result of an eating disorder.  

“We are facing a crisis in the treatment of anorexia nervosa, a debilitating, expensive, and frequently fatal illness,” write the authors of a viewpoint published in the February 24, 2021 online issue of JAMA Psychiatry

Although great advances are being made in understanding the underlying biology of these illnesses, more and better research is desperately needed to address a crisis in care, say the authors. In 2018 and 2019, only $9 per person with an eating disorder was spent on medical research, compared with $239 per person for Alzheimer’s disease research and $109 per person for autism research.

That is why a task force of the Academy for Eating Disorders, led by Walter H. Kaye, MD, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, and Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, Distinguised Professor of Psychiatry at University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill. issued a call for immediate action to address the treatment of patients with anorexia nervosa in the U.S.

Affordable, evidence-based care for eating disorders is lacking and access to care is unequal, favoring the insured, and disadvantaging those who are seriously and chronically ill. The past decade has witnessed the shrinking or closing of several established eating disorders programs housed in academic medical centers, noted Kaye and Bulik. Not only does this further hinder access, but also diminishes the capacity of medical schools to equip trainees in all health care disciplines with the necessary skills to detect and treat eating disorders. 

Kaye, executive director of the Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Program at UC San Diego Health, is available to answer questions about this disease.