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Eating Disorders + Potential Health Risks

November 24, 2014, 3:00 pm

Here at The-Sage, we spend lots of time talking about chronic diseases, recipes, and even educational videos - all with food and nutrition in mind. However, one of the least discussed topics in food and nutrition are eating disorders. In reality, millions of lives are impacted by eating disorders in the United States everyday. Eating disorders are a set of conditions that include: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that ½ a million teenagers suffer from at least one type of eating disorder and this statistic doesn’t even account for adults. Eating disorders do not discriminate whether you are female or male, have a high to low socioeconomic standing, or you are young or old - eating disorders have serious health consequences for all individuals who may suffer. It is important to bring more awareness to the health risks that eating disorders pose so that friends and family may be more apt to get their loved one help. Being able to recognize certain behaviors that could indicate an eating disorder is important. "Serious" or "not-so-serious" eating disordered behavior is irrelevant because small symptomatic behavior can potentially lead to devastating health consequences. Eating disorders can cause an array of issues from electrolyte imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, poor oral health, to problems with laxative abuse.

Individuals with anorexia nervosa (typically characterized by dietary restriction) do not receive adequate nutrients to sustain proper body functions. Being in a continuous state of physical starvation (though the person may not even perceive hunger) can result in slower heart rate and low blood pressure, which poses additional risks for heart failure. Because an individual with anorexia may not be receiving enough vitamins and minerals, the bones will expel nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, resulting in osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a bone condition in which the bones lose mineral stores, lose density, and can result in brittle bones, fractures, and more easily broken bones. Severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance as a result of poor nutrient intake can also lead to kidney failure. Other complications of inadequate nutrition include muscle loss, fainting, fatigue, weakness, dry hair and skin, excess hair growth due to hormonal imbalances (referred to as langugo).

Those that suffer from bulimia nervosa may receive enough nutrients, however, frequent episodes of binging and purging cause severe imbalances within the body. An electrolyte imbalance caused by dehydration from purging (both laxative or regurgitation induced) can cause irregular heat beats, and even heart failure (in extreme circumstances). Forced vomiting can cause gastric ruptures and esophageal ruptures. Stomach acid purged can cause inflammation of the esophagus and tooth decay. Other risks include ulcers within the digestive tract and chronic inflammatory problems such as pancreatitis.

The health risks that accompany binge eating disorder (characterized by uncontrollably consuming large quantities of food in one sitting) are essentially the same risks associated with obesity. Binge eating disorder is different from anorexia and bulimia in that individuals are receiving too many nutrients as opposed to not enough. These risks include high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and high cholesterol (that put people at a risk for heart disease), type II diabetes and gallbladder disease.

Dental complications can decrease the quality of life and tooth erosion is rampant among those who suffer from eating disorders. Those who suffer from bulimia nervosa have an increased risk for dental erosion due to the constant regurgitation of stomach acids that hit the teeth. Individuals with anorexia nervosa are also at a high risk for tooth decay because of the lack of nutrient intake that is needed for bone and tooth health. If a person with binge eating disorder consumes too much starchy and sugary foods/beverages, that could also lead to dental caries. Signs and symptoms of poor oral health range from erosive lesions on tooth surfaces; brittle, translucent, and weak teeth; hyper sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures; enlarged salivary glands; dry mouth; dry lips; and other unspecified tooth pain. Because of the high cellular turnover rate in the mouth, oral symptoms are usually the first signs that indicate an eating disorder.

Laxative abuse can wreak havoc on health. There is common misconceptions that use of laxatives will help prevent the absorption of calories and that by forcing food through the bowel quicker will prevent weight gain. Laxatives used inappropriately cause imbalances of electrolytes including potassium, sodium, magnesium, and phosphorous, which ensure nerve and muscle function. Your organs such as the heart and liver are muscles that cannot work properly with chronic electrolyte imbalances. Severe dehydration caused by laxative abuse can result in tremors, weakness, burred vision, fainting, damage to the kidneys, and even possible death. Over use of laxatives leaves the colon dependent upon them to produce a bowel movement. The more laxatives are used, the more they will be needed in order for the colon to function, which can eventually cause severe constipation problems.

The sooner an individual with an eating disorder can receive professional help, the less likely their health will be compromised. There are several resources available and excellent health care teams that specialize in rehabilitating eating disordered patients. Nationaleatingdisorders.org is a great place to look up information if you don’t know where to go or who to turn to. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder - speak up - it could mean saving a life.

Alexandria Wolz, Nutritionist + Physical Activity Expert for:

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