Eating Disorders for Parents: Health Consequences

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Eating Disorders Awareness

A “health consequence” is a general term for the many physical and mental health changes that can result from disordered eating. Some of the dangers may be specific to anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), or binge eating disorder (BED), while other health problems can be associated with more than one type of eating disorder.

Generally, if food restriction is involved, such as with anorexia nervosa or ARFID, the body is unable to get the nutrients it needs to function properly. In an attempt to conserve energy, the body’s natural response is to slow down. Typical symptoms such as a significant decrease in the heart rate (pulse) and blood pressure are a direct result of this process, and bone density is often compromised, leading to less strong bones.

Purging behaviors associated with bulimia nervosa upset the body’s normal chemical balance. This causes dangerous changes to the levels of electrolytes and subsequently can affect major body organs including the heart. The major risks associated with binge eating disorders may include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes.

The following is an overview of the systems and organs that are affected by eating disorder behaviors. You will note that some of the symptoms and health consequences overlap between AN, BN, and BED. Health consequences of ARFID would be the same as those of AN.

General

  • Marked weight changes
  • Weakness/fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Abnormal electrolytes (AN, BN)
  • Poor concentration, irritability

Skin, hair, and teeth

  • Dry skin (AN, BN)
  • Brittle nails (AN, BN)
  • Hair loss (AN, BN)
  • Fine downy hair growth (lanugo) (AN)
  • Cold intolerance (AN)
  • Tooth decay (BN)

Psychosocial

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Over concern with weight/shape
  • Shame or guilt
  • Withdrawal from friends/activities

Endocrine

  • Delayed growth, short stature, delayed puberty, low hormone levels (AN)
  • Delayed onset of menses, loss of periods in females (AN, BN)
  • Abnormal thyroid levels (sick euthyroid)
  • Insulin resistance of Type 2 diabetes (BED)
  • Loss of libido (AN)

Cardiovascular

  • Low pulse (AN, BN)
  • Dizziness (AN, BN)
  • Low blood pressure (AN, BN)
  • High blood pressure (BN, BED)
  • Arrhythmia/irregular heartbeat (AN, BN)

Gastroesophageal

  • Abdominal pain/bloating
  • Constipation
  • Reflux

Musculoskeletal

  • Low bone density, osteopenia, osteoporosis (AN)
  • Stress fractures (AN, BN)
  • Decreased muscle mass (AN)