The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) defines eating disorders as “serious but treatable mental illnesses that can affect people of every age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic group.” It’s an important distinction that eating disorders are complex mental disorders and not “fads” or “phases.”
While all eating disorders are characterized by disturbed eating habits, the most common also include an abnormal obsession with food, an intense fear of weight gain and an unhealthy body image. Eating disorders present serious health consequences that are frequently life-threatening.
Can Eating Disorders Be Fatal?
The most widely known eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED). While any eating disorder can have severe, and potentially deadly, health ramifications, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.”
The NEDA website references several research papers related to “mortality and eating disorders.” One such paper studied over 6,000 people with anorexia and found they “had a six fold increase in mortality compared to the general population. Reasons for death include starvation, substance abuse, and suicide.”
NEDA also referenced data gathered over 25 years from the U.S. National Death Index. The research paper concluded that “crude mortality rates were 4.0% for anorexia nervosa, 3.9% for bulimia nervosa, and 5.2% for eating disorder not otherwise specified.” Research results also found a high suicide rate in those suffering from bulimia nervosa.
Eating disorders like Pica, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), and Rumination Disorder are less commonly known eating disorders but can also result in severe malnutrition, nutritional deficiencies, and learning disabilities.
Eating disorders disrupt healthy physical and mental functioning
The cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurological and endocrine systems are all vulnerable to the effects of an eating disorder. With many eating disorders, organ failure, malnutrition and starvation are common. Additional information can be found on the NEDA website.
Disordered eating can damage the cardiovascular system when there are too few calories to fuel organ functions. This lack of energy drives the body to break down available tissue, often starting with the heart muscle. The result can be a dangerous drop in pulse and blood pressure, which can cause heart failure.
Heart failure can also result when excessive vomiting or laxative use causes an imbalance of electrolytes.
Damage to the gastrointestinal system occurs when inadequate food intake or excessive vomiting (also known as purging) harms the stomach. When human digestion slows or fails, the gastrointestinal system lacks the essential nutrients needed to function normally.
Impaired function can cause intestinal distress, nausea, and vomiting, which can lead to dangerous dehydration. Other serious ramifications may include blocked intestines or perforations, esophageal rupture, the inability to have a bowel movement, bacterial infections, dangerous fluctuations in blood sugar levels, pancreatitis and more.
The neurological system requires about one-fifth of the body’s calories to function optimally. NEDA warns that “dieting, fasting, self-starvation, and/or erratic eating means the brain isn’t getting the energy it needs.” The resulting effects on both mental and physical functioning can be severe, including difficulty in concentrating, disrupted sleep patterns, including sleep apnea, numbness, muscle cramps, seizures, dizziness or fainting and more.
The endocrine system secretes hormones that regulate the body’s growth, metabolism and sexual development and function. Without sufficient fat and calories to function normally, low levels of estrogen, testosterone and thyroid hormones can cause irregular periods or the cessation of menstruation altogether, bone loss, which may lead to fractures, lowered metabolic rate, which could reduce core body temperature to dangerous levels, and dangerously high cholesterol levels.
Inadequate nutrition or prolonged dehydration can have a deadly impact on all bodily systems and functions, with the possibility of:
- Kidney failure from severe dehydration
- Dangerous decrease in certain blood cells, which can impact the body’s ability to fight infections
- Anemia, which can cause weakness and shortness of breath as the heart works to pump more blood to make up for lack of oxygen
Health consequences of most common eating disorders
While eating disorders have many adverse health consequences in common, each disorder can have distinct health consequences of its own.
Anorexia can lead to self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Health consequences are caused mainly by malnutrition resulting from severe restriction of calorie intake, and often include:
- Brittle bones, hair, and nails
- Muscle loss
- Irregular heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Cessation of menstruation, infertility
- Downy hair growth covering body
- Mood disorders
- Heart failure
Bulimia is the uncontrollable binging on large amounts of food, then purging to rid the body of the calories. A study entitled The medical complications associated with purging found, “Medical conditions affecting the teeth, esophagus, gastrointestinal system, kidneys, skin, cardiovascular system, and musculoskeletal system were identified, with self-induced vomiting causing the most medical complications.”
Specific health consequences of bulimia may include:
- Tooth decay
- Gastric rupture
- Esophageal rupture
- Heart failure
BED features the uncontrollable eating of a large amount of food in a short time without the purging behavior characteristic of bulimia. Adverse health consequences may include:
- Muscle and joint pain
- Gastrointestinal discomfort
- Stomach rupture
- Heart disease
- Higher risk of diabetes
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- May contribute to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which may cause infertility, growth of facial or body hair or baldness
- Depression, anxiety and substance abuse
Pica is defined as regularly eating substances that lack nutritional value and are not meant for human consumption, like hair, dirt, or paint. This can cause serious health issues from infections, heavy metal poisoning, anemia, intestinal blockages or tears or other toxicities.
ARFID is the failure to consume sufficient calories to support normal growth and development. Not related to body image, those with ARFID find food unappealing or may be afraid of choking. Severe nutritional deficiencies caused by ARFID can affect growth and development, especially in children.
Rumination Disorder occurs when food is repeatedly chewed, swallowed then regurgitated. This can lead to severe malnutrition.
Eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses that not only adversely impact a person’s health, relationships and ability to successfully function in their daily lives but can be fatal.
It’s crucial for those struggling with an eating disorder to seek professional help. The earlier they enter a treatment program, the greater their chance for long-term recovery.
In 1989, Turning Point of Tampa developed their nationally recognized Eating Disorders/Food Addiction Program for clients with Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia Nervosa and Anorexia Nervosa. This comprehensive program uses a 12-Step-based treatment approach to focus on treating the addictive behaviors with food.
At Turning Point of Tampa our food addiction treatment plan includes:
- Individualized food plans
- Individual and group counseling
- Body image groups
- Meal planning, food shopping, and meal preparation
- Nutritional education
- Balanced exercise
- Development of assertive communication skills
Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.