Facts About Eating Disorders: Symptoms and Treatments

Eating Disorders

This week marks the National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Eating disorders affect 8% of the U.S. population, or 20 million women and 10 million men from all backgrounds and age groups. Body image, poor self-esteem, dieting fads, and body shaming have all contributed to this serious health threat that is gaining momentum within previously unafflicted populations.

Statistics indicate its serious health consequences:

  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder.
  • Approximately every 60 seconds someone dies as a direct result of an eating disorder.
  • Only one in 10 people with an eating disorder will receive treatment.
  • Previously unafflicted populations, including U.S. women over 50, are now affected. This demographic had 13% displaying signs of eating disorders in a recent study.
  • It’s possible to have more than one eating disorder within a lifetime.
  • Females with eating disorders commonly have other health issues like depression and anxiety and substance or alcohol abuse.

With such sobering statistics, it’s especially important to understand how to reduce risk factors, recognize symptoms and dangers, and know when to seek treatment.

Eating Disorder Types

There are three prevalent eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia is a serious illness that can lead to death. Studies determined more women and girls die from it than any other eating disorder or serious mental health issue like depression. It occurs more in girls and women, with those in their teens to early 20s facing greatest risk.

Those afflicted are dangerously thin, eat very little, experience unhealthy weight loss, and exhibit feelings of being overweight/fat even if thin or underweight. This condition inhibits regular bodily functions and increases early death risk.


  • Sadness
  • Moodiness
  • Confused or slow thinking
  • Poor memory or judgment
  • Thin, brittle hair and nails
  • Feeling cold constantly due to internal body temperature drop
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or weak
  • Feeling tired or sluggish
  • Irregular periods or never getting a period
  • Dry, blotchy or yellow skin
  • Fine hair growth on body (called lanugo)
  • Severe constipation or bloating
  • Weak muscles or swollen joints

Possible behavior changes:

  • Always talking about weight or food
  • Not eating or eating very little
  • Refusing to eat with others
  • Avoiding friends
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Taking laxatives or diet pills
  • Exercising excessively

Potential health problems:

  • Heart problems -- low blood pressure, slower heart rate, irregular heartbeat, heart attack and sudden death
  • Anemia and other blood issues
  • Thinning bones (osteopenia or osteoporosis)
  • Kidney stones or kidney failure
  • Lack of periods, inhibiting pregnancy
  • During pregnancy -- higher miscarriage risk, premature birth, cesarean delivery, having low-birth weight baby, post-partum depression

Bulimia nervosa

Bulimia affects more girls and women. It involves bingeeating large food amounts, then purging food or weight gain by vomiting, taking laxatives or pills, fasting or excessive exercise.

Bulimia is harder to distinguish because it may occur in those who are thin, overweight, or exhibit normal weight. Additionally, bingeing and purging behaviors are most often private.


  • Swollen cheeks or jaw
  • Calluses or knuckle scrapes (using fingers to induce vomiting)
  • Increasingly sensitive and decaying clear-looking teeth
  • Broken blood vessels in eyes
  • Acid reflux, constipation and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Severe dehydration

Possible behavior changes:

  • Consistently visiting the bathroom after eating to vomit
  • Excessive exercise, even in bad weather or when hurt/tired
  • Acting moody or sad, hating personal looks and feeling hopelessness
  • Having anger expression problems
  • Avoiding friends or previously enjoyed activities

Potential health problems:

  • Stomach damage
  • Electrolyte imbalance which can lead to heart attack or heart failure
  • Ulcers and throat damage
  • Irregular periods or not having periods, inhibiting pregnancy
  • Tooth decay
  • Dehydration
  • Bowel movement issues or intestinal damage from laxative abuse
  • During pregnancy -- higher miscarriage risk, premature birth, cesarean delivery, having low-birth weight baby, post-partum depression

Binge eating disorder

This is the most common U.S. eating disorder, affecting 3.5% young and middle-age women and 2% men. It affects women of all ethnicities and is the most common eating disorder among Hispanic, Asian-American and African American women. Some women may be more at risk; particularly those who diet as they are 12 times more likely to be afflicted. The population at most risk is women in early 20s.

Those afflicted often feel out of control, eat a large amount of food at one time yet don’t vomit after eating and may exercise excessively. Binge behaviors occurring at least once weekly within three months signify possible disorder.


  • Eating faster than normal
  • Eating until uncomfortable
  • Eating when not physically hungry

Possible behavior changes:

  • Having feelings of embarrassment, disgust, depression or guilt
  • Increased body weight toward being overweight or obese

Potential health problems:

Many (but not all) women afflicted are overweight or obese, raising risks for:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Certain cancers, including breast, endometrial, colorectal, kidney, esophageal, pancreatic, thyroid and gallbladder cancer
  • Menstrual cycle issues, including ovulation prevention, which can inhibit pregnancy
  • During pregnancy – gestational diabetes and preeclampsia risks

Pregnancy can raise binge eating disorder risk in women presenting higher risk factors. In one study, almost half experiencing binge eating disorder developed it during pregnancy. Research suggests binge eating during pregnancy may have several causes:

  • Worry over pregnancy weight gain
  • Greater stress during pregnancy
  • Depression
  • History of smoking and alcohol abuse
  • Lack of social support

After pregnancy, postpartum depression and pregnancy weight can trigger binge eating disorder in women previously afflicted. Women with binge eating disorder before pregnancy often gain more weight during pregnancy than unafflicted women. Researchers think pregnancy weight gain may cause some with the affliction pre-pregnancy to binge eat during pregnancy.


While discussion may be difficult, it’s imperative to seek professional help. Be open with your physician about your eating and exercise behaviors. Physical exams plus blood and urine tests can rule out other health concerns. Thorough investigation of kidney function, bone density and an electrocardiogram can determine if or how severe weight loss or gain has impacted your overall health.

Fortunately, long-term studies indicate women with past eating disorders usually reach and maintain healthy weight after treatment.


Your doctor may use one or a combination of the following treatments:

  • Nutrition therapy. Doctors, nurses, and counselors help with healthful eating to reach and maintain a healthy weight. Severe cases may require hospitalization to monitor any heart or kidney problems or participation in a residential medical treatment program to monitor nutrition. Reaching a healthy weight is a key part of the recovery process so the body and brain, including thoughts and feelings, function properly.
  • Psychotherapy. Sometimes called "talk therapy," psychotherapy is counseling to help change harmful thoughts or behaviors. It may focus on the importance of talking about your feelings and how they affect what you do. Talk therapy may be one-on-one with a therapist or in a group with others similarly afflicted.
  • Nutritional counseling. A registered dietitian or counselor can help you eat in a healthier manner.
  • Support groups can be helpful when incorporated with other treatments.
  • Medicine.  Some antidepressants may help those afflicted manage accompanying depression or anxiety.

Most girls and women do get better with treatment and are able to eat and exercise in healthy ways again. Some may get better after the first treatment while others get well but experience relapse and require treatment again. It’s important to monitor and honestly assess your health and behavior and reach out to your doctor if you suspect or experience relapse.

The Capital Women’s Care team is here for you and your family should you have any questions or concerns about eating disorders and their effect on overall health.

Our Mission

The providers of Capital Women's Care seek the highest quality medical and ethical standard in an environment that nurtures the spirit of caring for every woman.


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