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Dangerous Health Consequences of Eating Disorders

All eating disorders are characterised by serious disturbances in eating behavior that negatively affect metabolism. The longer an eating disorder persists, the greater the impairment to the person’s ability to live and function normally. The major eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. The course of any of the major eating disorders is similar to that of various other psychiatric problems, such as alcoholism, drug abuse or depression. All these conditions can severely affect an individual’s ability to work or study. They also ruin relationships and make it difficult for the affected individual to find enjoyment in life.

Eating disorders such as anorexia are not only emotionally devastating, they can also cause serious medical problems and even be fatal. Women with eating disorders are twelve times more likely to die than other women of similar age. In addition, young women with anorexia aged 15-24 are far more likely to die of this eating disorder than of any other cause. It goes without saying that eating disorders cause serious damage to the body long before death occurs.

Adolescence is a crucial time for our physical and mental growth and development. On average, girls gain 30%-40% of their adult body weight and achieve the final 20% of their height between the ages of 12 and 15. Moreover, a significant portion of adult bone mass, in both females and males, is established during adolescence. Eating disorders can severely interfere with these important changes. Some of the potential medical problems that can result include:

Medical Consequences of Anorexia Nervosa

A long period of starvation associated with anorexia deprives the body of essential nutrients, including protein, and prevents the normal metabolism of fat. In order to conserve energy and protect itself, the body’s metabolism slows down. This can interfere with important biological processes in the body and can lead to stunted growth, impaired development and damage of vital organs, such as:

  • Menstruation may stop in adolescent anorexic girls, even before extensive weight loss happens. This condition is named amenorrhea.
  • Due to changes in heart muscle, its beat becomes irregular. This can eventually cause heart failure and result in death.
  • Dehydration, kidney stones and kidney failure may occur.
  • Muscle atrophy, a loss of muscle mass due to lack of nutrients, resulting in weakness and lost muscle function.
  • A fine, soft body hair, named lanugo, develops on the arms and sometimes also on the face.
  • Loss of bone calcium may lead to premature osteoporosis (brittle bones).
  • Slowed body function causes delayed stomach emptying, resulting in constipation and bowel irritation.

Medical Consequences of Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimics are usually of normal weight, as they do not suffer from self-starvation characteristic of anorexics. However, frequent bingeing and purging can dramatically interfere with the body’s function and cause harm to its vital organs, such as:

  • Vomiting, diuretics and laxatives flush potassium and sodium from the body, leading to an electrolyte imbalance. This deficiency can result in arrhythmia, which may ultimately lead to heart failure and be fatal.
  • Frequent self-induced vomiting can damage the lining of the throat, esophagus and stomach.
  • The stomach acids in vomit can erode tooth enamel, causing cavities, tooth decay and eventual tooth loss.
  • Abuse of emetics (agents that cause vomiting) can result in heart failure and eventual death.
  • Laxative abuse may create a physical dependence, resulting in an inability to have normal bowel movements.

Medical Consequences of Binge Eating Disorder

Even without purging, bingeing has negative consequences of its own, such as:

  • Ingesting big amounts of simple carbohydrates (abundant in sweets, candies and junk food) in a short period of time places increased stress on the pancreas, which makes insulin to help the body digest glucose from carbohydrates. Initially, this may cause abnormal low blood sugar, but then later in life, it can lead to diabetes.
  • Elevated blood pressure in conjunction with increased triglyceride and cholesterol levels can harden the walls of the arteries and cause heart disease and heart attacks.

Where to Find More Information and Support:
Eating Disorder Hope
National Eating Disorders Association