The True Cost of Eating Disorders

The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

Eating disorders are classified as a cluster of disorders that impact an individual’s eating habits and practices, usually accompanied by a compulsive focus on appearance and perceived thinness. Eating disorders are often associated with young women, but people of all ages and genders can experience the symptoms of eating disorders. It may seem small or simple, but the wide-ranging effects of eating disorders can negatively impact people for the duration of their lives, and prove problematic for health over the long-term, no matter how seemingly “small” the disorder is.

The Many Faces of Eating Disorders

There are different recognized eating disorders, but the three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Each of these disorders affects an individual differently and has a different set of symptoms, but all have a common thread: an unhealthy relationship with food and diminished self esteem. Although eating disorders were once considered an issue with young, female dancers, people of all ages and backgrounds can have eating disorders, including non-specified eating disorders wherein an individual is neither refusing food nor purging food, but is instead heavily restricting food. Now that the basics of eating disorders have been covered, let us move on to a discussion of what does not qualify as an eating disorder.

What Is Not an Eating Disorder 

Dieting alone is not an eating disorder, nor is restricted eating alone. Instead, eating disorders must possess a specific set of symptoms in order to be diagnosed, and those symptoms must have been present for a prolonged period of time. If a child in their early teens seems to only want to eat broccoli and cauliflower, for instance, that falls under the umbrella of picky eating, rather than disordered eating. 

The True Cost of Eating Disorders

Although there is plenty to be lost when an eating disorder is present, there is far more to eating disorders than hunger, excessive consumption, and body dysmorphia. Eating disorders in childhood and early adulthood can have consequences that last well into middle age and beyond, which can negatively impact an individual’s ability to have children, maintain optimal health, and experience healthy organ function. Some of the more common side effects disordered eating include:

Diminished Libido and Fertility 

When the body is in a state of starvation or excess, it enacts certain mechanisms to ensure survival. While this is vital to make sure that people are kept safe in the case of food scarcity or excess, it quickly becomes problematic in response to an eating disorder. People of all puberty-based ages and genders may experience a dramatic decrease in both libido and fertility, and those who had eating disorders in high school may find that their disorders have left a lasting mark, in the form of diminished or lost libido and infertility.

Damaged Teeth and Gums 

Whether the eating disorder involves vomiting or purging or not, damaged teeth and gums are common in people working through an eating disorder. The acid in the mouth following vomiting effectively erodes teeth and damages gums, while the presence of an ED has been linked to osteoporosis and other bone damage. Damaged teeth and gums can occur with most types of eating disorders, and comprehensive dental care may be a vital component of care during this period.

Organ Failure 

Over time, as the nutrients in your food are either denied you or are introduced and removed, your organs will fail. Organs require fluid and food in order to survive, and when you remove those sources of energy, organs begin to waste and organ failure may occur. Even after recovery has been achieved, people with eating disorders may experience persistent issues with their hearts and other organs, as a direct result of the damage incurred following eating disorder symptoms, such as bingeing, refusing to eat, or vomiting after having eaten.

Additional Disorders and Conditions 

Because eating disorders lead to severe nutrient deficiencies and damage to the body, there are other conditions that can develop in response to the loss of adequate nutrients or the overloading of nutrients. Gastrointestinal Acid Reflux Disease (GERD), for instance, can arise following an eating disorder, and includes symptoms such as burning in the throat, damaged teeth and gums, malodorous breath, and discomfort when eating. Damage to the intestines is also possible, and people with eating disorders may develop issues like irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.

Seeking Help

If poring over articles or information regarding eating disorders has sparked some recognition or concern, it is vital to get help. Mental health professionals typically work alongside a team of other health professionals to ensure that people with eating disorders are being given the best standard of care and are being restored to health as much as is possible.