Are Eating Disorders Really Contagious?

16/05/2016 11:38 | Updated 16 May 2016

Cough, splutter, sniff, nose wipe, BOOM...eating disorder? Surely not. While the general consensus has always been that anorexia and bullemia are a little more complex than the common cold, recent studies suggest new parallels which indicate that, like your snotty nose, eating disorders might be somewhat contagious...could this be true?

Of course, it's not quite as simple as catching it on the playground. Last week, Dr Helen Bould, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry, believes told The Daily Telegraph that certain closed cultures can promote eating disorders within social groups and subsequently, spread them to others. The report carried out by Bould, claims that eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder affect 5.7% of adolescent girls, which is almost 2 in every class of 30 pupils.

Bould explains that the theory carried particular prevalence in aspirational and competitive environments where perfectionism is desired and idealised. A spokeswoman for Beat, the eating disorder charity, also added: "Many of those diagnosed with an eating disorder have a tendency towards perfectionism and competitiveness and are high achievers." Perhaps, it should come as no surprise that this was primarily exemplified in all-girls schools.

Having spent 11 years at one myself, I know the pressures that young girls experience in these environments - socially, physically, emotionally, everything is volatile and that is only heightened by lack of diversity. Particularly between the formative ages of 13 and 17, when everyone is striving for the same grades, the same friends and desperately searching for some kind of social acceptance. Insecurities are rife and anxieties seem amplified. Subsequently, you are constantly drawing comparisons between yourself and your friends. It's not difficult to imagine the damage this kind of atmosphere can stipulate where body image is considered.

After the all-girls school, I went on to attend a mixed boarding school. You would think that the addition of male peers would subdue anxieties and relieve some tension. Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite.

Dr Bould claims that girls might 'learn' eating disorders from their affected peers - hence the contagion aspect. Sadly, this is something I found to be very true at school. Though I thankfully never suffered myself, my school dining room was practically an incubator of disordered eating. Girls would swan down the aisle with nothing on their trays but a green apple and a black coffee, others would walk in with nothing at all. Some would wolf down as much food as possible only to quickly run to the toilets afterwards to 'bully' together - that was the abbreviation given to disguise the name bullemia nervosa, a condition describing those who appear to eat normally or, more commonly, excessively and vomit afterwards - an illness which affects an average of 4.1% women.

I often remember naively wondering what 'bully'ing was, as I watched my friends stuff second helpings of apple crumble and curly fries down, giggling as they excitedly ran downstairs to the bathrooms together. One day, curiosity and a fear of being excluded took me with them. As soon as I got there, the putrid smell of vomit overwhelmed my senses as I listened to my friends vomiting, cheering each other on as they did so. It was heartbreaking.

How could this mental illness become a kind of game?

What was even more shocking was how willing friends of mine were to get involved, forcing forks down their throat just so that they could feel included.

Bould continues to explain, "It might be an unintentional effect of the aspirational culture of some schools that makes eating disorders more likely; it might be that eating disorders are contagious and can spread within a school. On the other hand, it could be that some schools are better than others at identifying eating disorders in their students and ensuring they get diagnosed and treated".

Identifying those suffering was a huge part of the problem at my school, meal attendance wasn't monitored, nor were people's diets - obviously. Thus, bulimic and anorexic behaviour would typically go unnoticed and develop until dramatic weight loss and aesthetic differences alerted staff. Of course, occasionally sufferers and friends would come forward however, this was rare.

So, what can schools do to prevent eating disorders from 'spreading'? There is no simple answer. As is the case with prevention of all illnesses, knowledge is vital. As soon as we know more about these illnesses, discuss them and understand the mental, physical and emotional implications, the less taboo they become. Perhaps, if pupils are properly educated about food and nutrition in an approachable and non-invasive way, they will be more inclined to seek help if they find themselves exhibiting disordered eating habits.

For more information on eating disorders and how to seek help, visit Beat's website at