By Mandy Parsons
According to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders affect nearly 5% of the population. That translates to millions of people who experience a persistent, severe disturbance in their eating behaviors.
And eating disorders are no respecter of persons. Although women ages 12 to 35 are the most prone, eating disorders impact individuals of all backgrounds, body types, ages, and genders. This outcome can be devastating.
Adequate nutrition is essential to our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Consequently, those with eating disorders frequently face significant health challenges, some of which are life-threatening.
Harvard T.H. Chan’s School of Public Health reports that eating disorders result in 10,200 deaths per year, or one death every 52 minutes.
You might be wondering, Exactly what effects do eating disorders have on the body? And, How extensive are these damaging effects? Can they be reversed?
Effects of Eating Disorders on the Body
Every eating disorder poses health risks. Some side effects of eating disorders are unique to specific conditions, while others overlap.
Someone with anorexia nervosa restricts their food intake to the point of unhealthy weight loss. Consequences include yellow skin, muscle weakness, anemia, hypoglycemia, decreased body temperature, and suppressed immune response.
Bulimia is characterized by a cycle of bingeing and purging food. Those with bulimia often exhibit physical symptoms like weight fluctuations, stomach pain, sore throat, discolored teeth, and scars on their fingers or knuckles.
Both illnesses, however, cause digestive disruptions, thinning hair, brittle bones and nails, dehydration, and absence of a menstrual period. According to a study published by Cardiology in Review, anorexia and bulimia are also associated with increased cardiovascular problems such as arrhythmia and congestive heart failure.
People with binge eating disorder repeatedly consume large amounts of food due to compulsion. This triggers weight-related concerns including heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and blood pressure, as well as some types of cancer.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, in which individuals resist food intake for reasons that do not pertain to food preferences or any medical condition, may result in drastic weight loss, delayed puberty, or changes to physical growth.
Another example, pica is a feeding disorder defined by persistent consumption of nonnutritive, nonfood substances that can bring about issues like infections, intestinal blockages, broken teeth, and lead poisoning, among others.
Long-Term Effects of Eating Disorders
Can the long-term effects of eating disorders on the body cause extensive damage? The unfortunate answer is yes. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) warns that eating disorders take a serious toll on our major organ systems. Here is a breakdown:
When we starve ourselves, the body breaks down muscle to use for fuel. Among those muscles is the heart. This affects our pulse and blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart failure. Additionally, purging depletes the body of electrolytes which can lead to irregular heartbeat and possibly death.
Regular food binges increase the chance of a stomach rupture. Similarly, prolonged vomiting wears down the esophagus which can rupture as well. Malnutrition and purging contribute to bouts of pancreatitis. Laxative abuse is a factor in cathartic colon syndrome, and the ingestion of nonfood items may perforate the bowel.
Food deprivation upsets our concentration, sleep, and the ability to perform basic tasks. Furthermore, inadequate fat intake compromises the protective layer around nerve cells. This can produce tingling or numbness in the hands and feet. Nerve cells also need electrolytes to signal the brain. Lack of electrolytes causes muscle cramps and even seizures.
Fat and cholesterol fuel the production of hormones. Without proper nutrition, sex and thyroid hormone levels plummet. This creates a host of issues including menstrual irregularities, bone loss, and decreased resting metabolic rate. A low metabolic rate makes it difficult for the body to maintain its core temperature. In extreme circumstances, hypothermia is possible.
When to Seek Help
The good news is side effects of eating disorders can be reversed. The NIH Record reports that seeking proper care for eating disorders significantly restores health and may be lifesaving.
But how do you know whether to seek help for an eating disorder? Is it feasible that your symptoms are due to another illness? Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests that if your symptoms persist or worsen despite outpatient treatment, or if you find yourself preoccupied with food and weight, seek a professional evaluation.
The Meadows Ranch has a proven track record of helping women and young girls struggling with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders, including avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, body image disorders, and food phobias — all with the aim of achieving lasting recovery.
If you or a loved one is struggling with the effects of eating disorders on the body, please contact us today. Our caring staff will customize a comprehensive treatment plan so you can experience healing from your eating disorder and any accompanying mental health issues. The restoration of your body and a healthy relationship with food are just waiting to be yours.