The Economic Cost of Eating Disorders


Janice Kelly

date published

March 19, 2015, 7:07 p.m.



Recently, I read a NEDIC bulletin article where the author was attempting to compel people to pay attention and take action on eating disorders.  The author started out by making an economic case (i.e., eating disorders cost the economy money, therefore we should do something about them).  I felt like there was more to the story, which got me thinking.  Although eating disorders might cost the health care system billions every year, the profit to be gained from a culture that encourages their development in the first place and also helps to maintain them, far exceeds the cost of treating those who come forward.  It’s almost as though the individuals whose lives are touched by eating disorders – “touched” being highly euphemistic here – have become an acceptable cost of living.

Instead of talking about the cost of eating disorders, what about considering the cost of NOT having eating disorders?  Has anyone thought about that?  Sure, more people would be free to live without fear of “the calorie” or without constantly self-monitoring their thoughts, feelings and appearance.  Perhaps fewer mirrors would be necessary as people became more concerned with how their bodies felt rather than how they appeared on the outside.  Sure, there might be more joy and living in the moment, and less restriction, of food.  There might be more sharing of thoughts, ideas, feelings and opinions (I’m speaking here primarily about girls and women, who are still more prone to silence their own opinions than boys and men).  Sure, we might advance gender equity as a society, and perhaps even lessen other forms of connected oppressions.  But at what cost?

People who feel badly about themselves are profitable.  Girls and women who are worried about how they look are easier to hold down.  Entire industries are built around generating a culture in which eating disorders thrive.  The food industry as a whole, particularly processed foods, encourage a disconnection from our food sources.  The beauty, diet, fitness and fast food industry (or “quick service restaurants” as I recently heard on TV) all contribute to and profit from a culture in which eating disorders thrive.   

Yes, we could throw more money at the problem (and we should). Yes, we could help those who have been entrenched in the grips of an eating disorder.  We could offer them the supports and services that they need to get better.  But what about getting at the root of the problem? What about creating a culture that is overall more loving and accepting of people – all people, no matter their size, shape, gender, race, class, sexual orientation or gender identity, and perhaps more importantly, a culture that teaches people to be more loving and accepting of themselves?  What about that?    

Perhaps the real economic cost of eating disorders will come when enough people have been touched by them – either personally, through someone that they know, or through educating themselves about balance and healthy living.  Perhaps then they will demand change.  Not just more in-patient beds (necessary), not just more specialized treatment providers (necessary), not just more support programs (necessary), but real, lasting substantive change.  A transformation in the ways that people (especially girls) are socialized to relate to themselves and others, and the ways that they are taught to see the world.  Change in the ways that they are taught to estimate their own worth and value.  When this happens, then the economy is really in trouble.  Then people will be forced to pay attention. 

Then they will be forced to care.   

Janice Kelly is a former NEDIC volunteer.  She has an MA in Women’s Studies from York University and works as Manager of Knowledge Exchange at Children’s Mental Health Ontario.  

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