How do eating disorders impact your mental and physical health?

Eating habits directly affect physical and psychological functions. How you eat, schedule meals and choose your diet can significantly impact your overall wellness, as our body consists of systems connecting from one place to another. 

So, having an eating disorder can potentially put you at a high risk of developing different mental and physical health concerns. Bad eating habits normally come and go, but for some people, they become a real problem. 

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders refer to serious mental and physical illnesses involving complex and damaging internal relationships with food, eating, exercise and body image. There are constant concerns about weight, the body looks and eating food which makes people with eating disorders unable to consume the recommended vitamins and nutrients that the body needs [1]. 

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More than 20 million women and 10 million men all around the world have been struggling with eating disorders, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion and sex. Unlike the popular misconception that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice, they can actually be fatal. 

4 impacts of eating disorders on mental health

A person with an eating disorder usually struggles to have a stable perception of their body and decision on their eating habits. In short, they suffer from some mental health issues that are medically treatable. Predominantly, some of the impacts of eating disorders on mental health are the following:

How do eating disorders impact your mental and physical health?
Photograph: puhimec/Envato

1. Anxiety disorders 

Racing thoughts that are quite fast, along with some physical symptoms, are what a person with an anxiety disorder experiences. Anxiety disorders are common in people who suffer from eating disorders, which can disrupt their day-to-day activities with intense and persistent fears and thoughts. 

Having an anxiety disorder may further develop an eating disorder. Research suggests that about 65 percent of people with eating disorders appear to have one type of anxiety disorder [2]. 

2. Depression

Depression is another common mental health condition that victimizes over 280 million people worldwide. Without proper treatment and professional help, people with depression can end their lives; in fact, over 700,000 people die every year because of suicide [3]. 

The mental condition can affect one’s everyday thoughts, feelings and physical body. People who suffer from depression most of the time feeling sad, empty or irritable, and they may develop an eating disorder as depression can cause loss of one’s appetite. 

People with an eating disorder consume small amounts of food, which can lead to undernourishment, one prominent risk factor for depression. Depression can also make it mentally difficult to take care of the body, including showering, eating, cleaning up and dressing. As you can see, depression and eating disorders can be developed, whichever one occurs first. 

3. Substance abuse disorders

Excessive alcohol intake or drug consumption are some of the common examples of substance abuse disorders. Substance abuse disorders are harmful to the body and community, which makes the disorder really concerning in the long run. Having a substance abuse disorder can also co-occur with an eating disorder.

Research reveals that women with either substance abuse or an eating disorder are four times more likely to develop the other type of disorder than women who have neither [4]. It was further backed up by another study, which emphasized that almost a third of women with a substance abuse disorder also have anorexia or bulimia – two types of eating disorders. 

4. Disrupt brain functions

A typical brain weighs less than five pounds, which may seem a little lighter than the daily nutrients it needs. Your brain requires loads of vitamins to function at its best condition, so eating low amounts of food every day may disrupt your brain functions; some of them can be:

Poor concentration – insufficient nutrient intake can directly affect your ability to concentrate and focus on daily activities.

Trouble sleeping – your brain may go into starvation mode if you lack food intake, which can cause sleeping problems like trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Also, people with more body weight or are bigger built are at a high risk of having sleep apnea – a sleeping condition where the breathing stops and restarts several times while asleep. 

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Fainting, dizziness and headaches – inadequate food may not bring nutrients to the brain, which can cause you to lose consciousness and experience frequent headaches.

Seizures – worse, you may also experience seizures as some eating disorders can disrupt your blood mineral levels or electrolytes. 

3 impacts of eating disorders on physical health

Eating disorders can do a lot of damage to physical health. When you have an eating disorder, you may consume insufficient nutrients that keep the body functioning properly or consume food excessively, which can result in certain health complications. 

1. Heart problems

Top of the list is developing heart issues. Eating disorders may put you at a high risk of developing fatal heart complications. Basically, the heart primarily keeps you alive, so it is a crucial body organ to have a disease. It is a muscle that pumps blood through your body. 

Consuming very few calories may result in the breaking down of muscles, as your body may use the muscle tissue to fuel energy. The following heart problems may be developed from having an eating disorder:

Abnormal heart rhythms – the heart beats to a steady rhythm in order to function properly; however, some unhealthy eating behaviors can cause the heart to beat irregularly.

Enlargement of the heart having an enlarged heart is concerning, too, as it does not work well. 

Congestive heart failure – eating disorders may further weaken the heart, causing slow pumps of blood through the body.

Sudden cardiac death – having an eating disorder may put you at risk of sudden cardiac death, which makes the heart stop beating suddenly. 

2. Hormonal problems

Hormones are like chemical messengers in the body that help smoothly run some vital body systems. With the food you eat, your body can then produce all of the hormones that it needs, like fat and cholesterol. However, eating smaller amounts of food may disrupt hormone production [5]. Some of the hormonal problems you may experience if you have an eating disorder are:

Hypothyroidism – low amounts of thyroid hormones can lead to hypothyroidism, in which you may often feel tired and gain weight. 

Abnormal periods – having low sex hormones may result in abnormal or irregular periods or discontinue altogether, leading to infertility. 

Weak bones – eating disorders can also cause your bones to feel weak and also put you at risk of developing osteoporosis, which increases your risk for broken bones. 

Diabetes – excessive or binge eating can make your body more resistant to insulin, a hormone that helps control your sugar levels. Insulin problems can lead to type 2 diabetes. 

3. Digestion problems

The digestive system is where the foods taken are being processed to get the nutrients and remove some types of waste, and so it is generally affected by eating disorders. 

How do eating disorders impact your mental and physical health?

Eating disorders can cause significant wear and tear on the digestive system, and in some cases, it comes with life-threatening consequences. Food restriction and vomiting can make it difficult for the digestive system to follow its normal rhythms. Some digestion problems from eating disorders can be: 

Slow digestion or gastroparesis – limiting food intake and vomiting the food after consuming can both interfere with normal stomach emptying, making it hard for the body to digest nutrients. It can also lead to pain, bloating, blockages and some bacterial infections. 

Severe constipation – low food consumption and poor nutrition may weaken the muscles of the intestine, causing it harder for the body to make stool and push it out. Plus, laxatives can also damage the nerves in the gut which results in the impossibility of bowel movement without using them.

Common types of eating disorders

Eating disorders have several types that can affect individuals regardless of their age, gender and more. The common ones are the following: 

Anorexia nervosa – health experts believe that anorexia nervosa is the most deadly of all mental illnesses related to eating disorders, as it has the highest mortality rate. It is also considered to be the most severe of all eating disorders [6].

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) – BED is characterized by episodes of binge eating of a large amount of food. The so-called “binge” describes when a person consumes an excessive amount of food within a period of two hours.

Bulimia nervosa – this eating disorder condition happens due to repeatedly binging on large amounts of food and then purging it. Purging behaviors involve forcing oneself to throw up, over-exercising and utilising diet pills and laxatives. 

The bottom line

Eating disorders can be really deadly, which is contrary to what some people may think. In fact, there are many research studies about eating disorders showing that they can be really life threatening. The death rate for people suffering from eating disorders is much more than that of the general population. Also, many more people die from having anorexia nervosa than from any other mental illness [7]. 

If you know some people who have eating disorders, it is better to give them support and patience as most of them feel isolated and ashamed. Talking to them as a friend or family or asking them to seek health professional help may improve their situation. 

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The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.