Dr. Elayne Daniels

The very real consequences of eating disorders– especially if left untreated — wreak havoc with body, mind, and spirit.

Messages involving false promises bombard us. The essence of the messages is that dieting and exercise will let you live longer and be happier. For people with an eating disorder, the message is reconfigured and taken to an extreme.

Diet Culture shortens lives and definitely detracts from its quality. Ironic.

In some cases, eating disorders are life-threatening.

Oh, and contrary to popular belief, eating disorders aren’t a phase, “white girl thing”, plea for attention, or about vanity. It bears repeating: They are illnesses with potentially serious consequences.

The media tends to glamorize eating disorders, featuring skinny white teens with anorexia as if they’re “poster people” for all eating disorders.

Anorexia — and any eating disorder — can happen to anyone. As in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. And, all genders and demographics are susceptible.

Eating disorders commonly present during adolescence. But, they can also emerge in childhood or adulthood. Certain risk factors in genetics, biology, psychology, and culture play a role in ‘the perfect storm’.

Ironically, anorexia, the eating disorder most often featured and glamorized, is the least common among eating disorders.

Bulimia nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Otherwise Specified Feeding and Eating Disorders (OSFED) are each far more common than anorexia.

All eating disorders are serious conditions that are unlikely to go away without proper treatment.

You might think that alerting people to the harmful consequences of eating disorders would motivate them to recover. It doesn’t. In fact, it can cause an eating disorder to become more entrenched.

Consider yourself forewarned: Educating a person with an eating disorder about possible consequences is unlikely to affect their behavior or thinking. Even though the consequences are real and the person suffering is knowledgable.

The other thing to keep in mind is that school-based education and prevention programs on eating disorders can backfire if not administered properly. Some research shows that attempts at prevention may be associated with increased rates of eating disorders.

There’s a general tendency, among teenagers especially, to think serious consequences only happen to other people, not to them.

They do not realize that some consequences of eating disorders are irreversible. (And fatal.)

Ahhh, the illusion of invincibility.

The personal fable, especially common for teenagers, is that nothing bad could, would, or will happen to them. Worrisome consequences only happen to others people.

And, the power of denial is another defense against acknowledging just how serious eating disorder symptoms are.

Denial is especially prominent in the case of anorexia nervosa. Denial of the symptoms, of having a disorder, and denial of just about anything related to anorexia.

Examples of denial take the form of: “I am just eating healthy.” Or “I don’t need to eat as much as other people do.” “I am not skinny/sick/(whatever) enough to need treatment.”

Eating disorders often start “innocently”.

I’ve yet to meet anyone with an eating disorder who set out to develop one. I’ve also not known anyone who has wholeheartedly agreed to treatment, at least initially.

Here’s a common scenerio as a parent:

Your teenager becomes a vegetarian. You think nothing of it.

After a few weeks she declares she’s vegan and gradually eats less variety. And becomes unusally interested in collecting recipes, watching Youtube cooking clips, and being by herself.

At her annual physical, her weight is lower than last year’s, although she is slightly taller. She dismisses your and the doctor’s concern by saying something about how much “healthier” she is eating now. She is convinced you are “overreacting and need to chill.”

The doctor may or may not be educated in the field of eating disorders. Don’t assume he or she is.

The response of an eating-disorder-savvy doctor will include recommendations for follow-up labs, vitals, and weight checks. As well as a referral to a Registered Dietician and to a psychotherapist – both of whom have a specialty in treating eating disorders.

A doctor who is not trained in eating disorder treatment is much more likely to mistake a patient’s denial as fact. The doctor may even compliment the patient on his weight loss “success”. (Cringeworthy!)

People of all ages with eating disorders often recall being told earlier in their life by their doctors that they need “to watch their weight”, “be healthier”, or “go on a diet”. Ouch.

Consequences of eating disorders can be divided into different groups, such as medical, psychological, and social.

Some consequences of eating disorders are short term, and some are long term. Some are reversible, and others are not. How dire the consequences are varies for each person.

The four main categories of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and OSFED. The ways they’re different is less important than recognizing they all share harmful consequences.

In the case of all eating disorders, distorted thinking and behaviors overtake every minute of daily life and hold the sufferer hostage. Life becomes exhausting in mind, body, and spirit.

Even those who seem “ok” or appear to enjoy having an eating disorder are not living a life of rainbows and butterfies. Juggling their eating disorder and relationships, work, health, mood, and other aspects of life is eventually impossible.

The exhausting way of life with an eating disorder can quickly break down even the strongest people.

Having an eating disorder becomes all consuming. So much time and energy are spent micromanaging food and exercise. and evaluating worth based on food choices and the number on the scale (aka the gravitational pull between you and the center of the earth!).

Sufferers create rules for themselves. The self imposed rules are often but not always specific to eating, weight, and exercise. The rules inevitably erode relationships, school, career, and other aspects of people’s lives.

The lists of consequences below are true of eating disorders in general. They are not exhaustive or applicable to everyone.

1. Medical consequences of eating disorders

Physical health complications from eating disorders are common. They happen because of the particular combination of restricting food, bingeing on food, and/or purging (compulsively exercising, chewing/spitting, inducing purging).

Early physical side effects of eating disorder behavior can include:

  • stomach cramps
  • dizziness
  • fainting spells
  • muscle weakness
  • sleep difficulties
  • cardiac abnormalities
  • tooth decay
  • gum damage
  • dehydration
  • electrolyte imbalance

Eating disorders affect every system in the body:

  • Nervous
  • Respiratory
  • Circulatory
  • Digestive
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Integumentary
  • Reproductive
  • Endocrine
  • Immune

Weight changes may or may not be noticeable at first. In some cases, weight changes may not even occur. But that doesn’t mean there’s no risk.

Over time, especially if left untreated, eating disorders damage organs, including the heart, kidneys, and liver. And the brain.

Just as each eating disorder involves slightly different behaviors, so does the impact. Despite differences, all eating disorder consequences are concerning and dangerous.

2. Psychological consequences of eating disorders

People with eating disorders have distorted thought patterns that keep negative thought loops in motion and self-esteem low. Already low self-esteem nosedives as harmful thoughts and behaviors play off each other.

A common consequence (and contributing factor for) of eating disorders is emotional dysregulation. People have difficulty controlling their emotions and behavior. They suffer from increased negative emotion-states, such as depression or anxiety. Hopelessness and a sense of worthlessness often occur and can lead to suicidality.

One of the functions of the eating disorder symptoms is to numb or distract from experiencing feelings head on. Without access to emotion, you become more of a robot than human.

3. Social consequences of eating disorders

Relationships suffer in the lives of people with eating disorders. Suffering occurs for people with eating disorders and their loved ones, friends, family, and even acquaintences. No one in their world is exempt from being negatively impacted.

The physical and mental health consequences cause huge worry and stress for loved ones.

Eating disorders are physical, psychological, and social disorders, and so are their consequences. The physical consequences occur alongside distorted thoughts and unhealhty behaviors. They make life difficult, whether due to extreme fatigue, dizziness, or secrecy. Socially, eating disorders negatively affect relationships of all types. And the relationship with yourself most of all.

Although eating disorder symptoms and consequences are serious, healing from one is fully possible and oh so glorious! Many of the consequences are reversible if treated in a timely manner.

The sooner, the better.

Dr. Elayne Daniels is an international coach, consultant, and licensed psychologist in MA, specializing in eating disorder recovery, body image, and Highly Sensitive People. Her passion is helping people of all ages recover and live life with ease and joy. You can contact her here.

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