What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are real, complex, and devastating conditions that can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships. They are not a fad, phase, or lifestyle choice. Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that affect a person’s emotional and physical health. People struggling with an eating disorder need to seek professional help. The earlier a person with an eating disorder seeks treatment, the greater the likelihood of physical and emotional recovery.
In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). (EDNOS is now recognized as OSFED, other specified feeding or eating disorder, per the DSM-5.)
For various reasons, many cases are likely not to be reported. In addition, many individuals struggle with body dissatisfaction and subclinical disordered eating attitudes and behaviors, and the best-known contributor to the development of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is body dissatisfaction (Stice, 2002). By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life (Smolak, 2011).
About Anorexia Nervosa:
Health Consequences, Including Mortality
In anorexia nervosa’s cycle of self-starvation, the body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally. Thus, the body is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy, resulting in:
• Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which mean that the heart muscle is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower.
• Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones.
• Muscle loss and weakness.
• Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure.
• Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness.
• Dry hair and skin; hair loss is common.
• Growth of a downy layer of hair—called lanugo—all over the body, including the face, in an effort to keep the body warm.
A review of nearly fifty years of research confirms that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder (Arcelus, Mitchell, Wales, & Nielsen, 2011).
For females between fifteen to twenty-four years old who suffer from anorexia nervosa, the mortality rate associated with the illness is twelve times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death (Sullivan, 1995).
The recurrent binge-and-purge cycles of bulimia can affect the entire digestive system and can lead to electrolyte and chemical imbalances in the body that affect the heart and other major organ functions. Health consequences include:
• Electrolyte imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death.
• Electrolyte imbalance is caused by dehydration and loss of potassium, sodium and chloride from the body as a result of purging behaviors.
• Potential for gastric rupture during periods of bingeing.
• Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus from frequent vomiting.
• Tooth decay and staining from stomach acids released during frequent vomiting.
• Chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation as a result of laxative abuse.
• Peptic ulcers and pancreatitis.
Binge eating disorder often results in many of the same health risks associated with clinical obesity, including:
• High blood pressure.
• High cholesterol levels.
• Heart disease as a result of elevated triglyceride levels.
• Type II diabetes mellitus.
• Gallbladder disease.
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