Eating: Friend or Foe?

Information on deadly eating disorders


As the new year begins, many people have the resolution of losing weight or getting healthy. This is a fantastic goal to have, and the start of a new year is the perfect opportunity to start. However, not all people who aim to lose weight do it in a healthy way. Some even die in their destructive weight loss.

Most people have heard the word “anorexic” before. It’s the adjective that is used to describe underweight people. It’s much more than that, though. Anorexia nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. It’s more than just being thin. It involves intense fear of gaining weight and restricting food intake in order to avoid it. The body is denied the essential nutrients it needs to function normally, so it is forced to slow down all of its processes to conserve energy. This slowing down has very serious medical consequences such as:

  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which means that the heart muscle is changing. The risk for heart failure rises as heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower.
  • Reduction of bone density (osteoporosis), which results in dry, brittle bones
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Severe dehydration, which can result in kidney failure
  • Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness
  • Dry hair and skin, hair loss

Between 5-20% of people suffering from anorexia will die. This gives it one of the highest death rates of any mental health condition. Anorexia is a very serious disorder, and requires intensive treatment to recover from. Recovery is possible, but not without help from a trusted adult to get started on the road to recovery.

Another serious eating disorder is bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by frequent episodes of consuming very large amounts of food (“binging”), followed by behaviors to remove the food from the body and prevent weight gain (“purging”). Purging activities include self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, and excessive exercise routines. Bulimia is much harder to detect than anorexia, as people struggling with bulimia typically appear to be of average body weight. It can be extremely harmful to the body. The recurrent binge-and-purge cycles can damage the entire digestive system and affect the heart and other major organ functions. Some of the health consequences of bulimia nervosa include:

  • Electrolyte imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death. Electrolyte imbalance is caused by dehydration and loss of potassium and sodium from the body as a result of purging behaviors
  • Inflammation and possible rupture of the esophagus from frequent vomiting
  • Tooth decay and staining from stomach acids released during frequent vomiting
  • Chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation as a result of laxative abuse
  • Gastric rupture is an uncommon but possible side effect of binge eating

Another disorder that goes hand-in-hand with both of these eating disorders is body dysmorphic disorder. BDD is a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupations with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance. This defect is almost always extremely exaggerated by the person, and it causes them intense distress. In the case of eating disorders, BDD results in an inaccurate perception of one’s weight and size; no matter how much weight they lose, they continue to believe they’re fat. This combination results in more extreme measures to lose weight, and the downwards spiral into deadly habits continues. These disorders don’t always coincide; not all people with eating disorders have BDD, and not all people with BDD have eating disorders.

Being aware of the warning signs is crucial to the recovery of someone struggling with an eating disorder.

The warning signs of anorexia are:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, and dieting
  • Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (no carbohydrates, etc.)
  • Frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight despite weight loss
  • Anxiety about gaining weight or being “fat”
  • Denial of hunger
  • Development of food rituals (eating foods in certain orders, excessive chewing, rearranging food on a plate, etc.)
  • Consistent excuses to avoid mealtimes or situations involving food
  • Excessive, rigid exercise regimen despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury; the need to “burn off” calories taken in
  • Withdrawal from usual friends or activities
  • In general, behaviors and attitudes indicating that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns

The warning signs of bulimia are:

  • Evidence of binge eating, including disappearance of large amounts of food in short periods of time or finding wrappers and containers indicating the consumption of large amounts of food.
  • Evidence of purging behaviors, including frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, signs and/or smells of vomiting, presence of wrappers or packages of laxatives or diuretics.
  • Excessive, rigid exercise regimen–despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury, the compulsive need to “burn off” calories taken in.
  • Unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area.
  • Calluses on the back of the hands and knuckles from self-induced vomiting.
  • Discoloration or staining of the teeth.
  • Creation of lifestyle schedules or rituals to make time for binge-and-purge sessions.
  • Withdrawal from usual friends and activities.
  • In general, behaviors and attitudes indicating that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns.
  • Continued exercise despite injury; overuse injuries.

If someone is struggling with an eating disorder, please get them help. They could very easily die. Losing weight is a good goal to have, but purging and restrictive eating are not healthy ways to accomplish this. A doctor’s opinion is necessary if intending to go on a diet. The doctor will work with their patient to figure out what works best for them. Not all diets work for everyone, so getting the help of a medical professional before altering eating habits is important. An eating disorder is never going to be healthy. Period. It’s not as simple as not eating until the desired weight is reached and then eating again. It’s called a disorder for a reason. Inevitably, severe malnutrition will occur, and, if not addressed, hospitalization and/or death are likely. Don’t let someone struggling be alone. Please get help. They might be angry at first, but it’s in their best interests to tell a trusted adult and get them help. It’s better to have an angry friend in the short term than a dead friend in the long term. Losing weight is never worth dying.

To learn more about eating disorders or get help for yourself/a friend/family member, visit these links: