At least 30 million people of all ages and gender suffer from an eating disorder in the United States. February 24th through March 1st is Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a movement that aims to show support for people with eating disorders and raise awareness for the prevalence of these disorders. There are several different types of eating disorders, with the most common being Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating Disorder. They can affect any age, gender, or social class. However, eating disorders are most likely reported during the adolescent years and into early adulthood. SIMEDHealth's Digestive Disease Associates gastroenterologist Jason Hallman, MD, discussed with us some of the dangerous effects different eating disorders can have on your body.
What are the different types of eating disorders?
Anorexia Nervosa is the most well-known eating disorder. Dr. Hallman says, "People with anorexia nervosa have a self-perception of being overweight, even if they are severely underweight. They tend to monitor their weight carefully, restrict their intake of calories, and avoid certain types of food. People with anorexia may also have co-existing obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Anorexia nervous can be severely damaging to the body, resulting in thinning of bones, infertility, brittle hair, and nails. Severe cases can result in significant electrolyte imbalances, heart failure, multi-organ failure, and death."
Bulimia Nervosa, like anorexia, develops during adolescence and early adulthood. Dr. Hallman explains, "People with bulimia eat a large amount of food at a time, often feeling as if they cannot stop until it becomes painful to continue. They then purge by forcing themselves to vomit, use laxatives, diuretics, enemas, and/or excessively exercising. Most often, individuals with bulimia maintain average weight, but looks can be deceiving."
Even though we hear a lot about anorexia and bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED) is the most common eating disorder in the United States. BED is very similar to bulimia. People who binge, consume large amounts of food in a short period, but do not empty their stomachs after eating. Extreme depression and guilt are common symptoms for binge eaters. It is common for someone with BED to be overweight but still shows concern for their weight.
Are there any long term effects on the body from having an eating disorder?
Dr. Hallman says, "Any eating disorder affects your body. Lack of appropriate calorie intake and fat consumption can cause dry skin and hair to become brittle and fall out. The body will grow fine, downy hair to conserve warmth during periods of starvation. You may develop anemia and have a decrease in infection-fighting white blood cells."
When there aren't enough calories being taken in, the cardiovascular system will break down tissue to use for fuel. Muscles are some of the first organs broken down, and the heart is a muscle. The use of laxatives and vomiting starves your body of necessary electrolytes.
Normal stomach emptying is disrupted when there is less food in the stomach, or it is purged by vomiting. "Slowed digestion and intake of nutrients can lead to stomach pain, bloating, nausea, and vomiting. Other symptoms include blood sugar fluctuations, sore throat, and hoarseness from vomiting, as well as intestinal obstructions and a ruptured stomach," says Dr. Hallman.
"The brain uses up to one-fifth of the body's calories, and it is affected when it does not receive the energy it needs. Extreme hunger or fullness at bedtime can disturb sleep. If the brain and blood vessels cannot function properly, then impaired thought process, dizziness, or fainting can occur."
What can someone with an eating disorder do to overcome it?
Dr. Hallman recommends, "Reaching out for help, getting a diagnosis, and following a treatment plan can save your life. This treatment plan should include a combination of psychologic and nutritional counseling, along with medical and psychiatric monitoring. With treatment, people with long-standing eating disorders can and do recover."