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Effects of Eating Disorders

It is important to be aware that eating disorders can have negative effects on both physical and mental health. If left untreated, these issues can lead to serious medical problems that may even become life-threatening. However, with education and early intervention, it is possible to prevent the problem from getting worse.

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Gaining Insight into the Effects of Eating Disorders on Individuals

When unhealthy eating habits get out of hand, eating disorders can arise and seriously affect a person’s physical and mental health. Medical complications are incredibly common with eating disorders, making untreated cases potentially life-threatening.

By better understanding, the effects of eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions, patients and their family members can better address and treat eating disorders before they jeopardize overall health and wellness.

Physical Effects of Eating Disorders

For the three most common types of eating disorders—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder—the physical effects can be devastating and ultimately prove to be life-threatening if left untreated.

The physical effects of eating disorders can go far behind the apparent symptoms like malnutrition or extreme weight loss.

Relentless restricting, purging, or binge eating can take a considerable toll on basic bodily functions, causing organ systems to struggle to function without the aid of healthy eating patterns.


Malnutrition is the most common effect of all eating disorders, regardless of type. The reason is evident for eating disorders like anorexia, but malnutrition can occur with bulimia and binge eating disorders as well.

The purging associated with bulimia can deprive the body of essential nutrients and the calories needed for basic functions.

In the case of a binge eating disorder, malnutrition can occur when patients only eat and binge on specific foods, especially junk foods.

Signs of malnutrition from eating disorders include:

  • Extreme loss of body weight and muscle in adults
  • Loss of muscle mass or a lack of proper growth or body weight, especially in children
  • High or low levels of specific vitamins and nutrients
  • Mental fog or struggling to concentrate
  • Chronic fatigue or having no energy
  • Loss of interest in food
  • Constantly feeling cold or having a lower body temperature
  • Slowed healing times when sick or injured
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia

Tooth Enamel and Esophagus Damage

While intentionally throwing up (a form of purging behavior) can occur in other eating disorders, it’s especially problematic for people with bulimia that purge by vomiting regularly.

Vomit purging is often preceded by episodes of binging large amounts of food, which puts an enormous strain on the esophagus each time the person throws up.

However, the most significant danger of vomit purging is the constant exposure of strong stomach acid on tissues without defense against bile’s corrosive properties.

Patients who regularly vomit can experience the following:

  • Extreme loss of tooth enamel
  • Significant erosion of the pharynx (throat)
  • Swelling of salivary glands
  • Damage to vocal cords
  • Weakening or rupture of the esophagus


Gastroparesis occurs when a patient has paralysis of the stomach, which causes stomach muscle contractions to be weaker and slower than needed to digest food and move it to the intestines. Both frequent vomiting and food restriction can cause gastroparesis.

Gastroparesis caused by eating disorders can also lead to:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blood sugar fluctuations
  • Bloating and stomach pain
  • Bacterial infections
  • Blocked intestines or constipation due to masses of undigested food
  • Feeling full after eating only small amounts of food

Heart and Brain Damage

The effects of eating disorders on the heart and brain can be serious and even permanent in some cases.

For the heart, anorexia and extreme restriction can cause prevent the heart from pumping enough blood and even cause a breakdown in heart muscles, leading to the risk of heart failure and heart disease.

Because vomiting often depletes the body of essential electrolytes and minerals, patients with bulimia are at elevated risk for heart failure.

On the other hand, eating disorders can affect the brain in multiple ways, slowly leading to brain damage as symptoms continue.

Common ways eating disorders affect the brain include:

  • Disruption in neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that transmit signals from one nerve to another
  • Nerve-related conditions that include disordered thinking, numbness, odd nerve sensations in the hands or feet, and seizures
  • Increased risk for adolescents to develop neurological symptoms in early adulthood
  • Structural changes and abnormal activity in the brain during anorexic states
  • Reduced heart rate, depriving the brain of oxygen
  • Weakened response in the brain’s reward center
  • Damage to the emotional centers of the brain that lead to depression and irritability
  • Difficulty thinking, setting priorities, and switching tasks
  • Shrinking in the overall size of the brain


According to research from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, anorexia is associated with a threefold increase in the lifetime risk of a bone break, and up to 57% of anorexic women break at least one bone during life.

But the risk is also present for patients with bulimia and even binge eating disorder. Typically, the body reabsorbs old bone, and new bone is produced by bone cells, but bone production slows down as we age.

Stress and malnutrition can accelerate natural bone loss, causing bones to be absorbed quicker than new bone can be created. Because malnutrition is so common with eating disorders, patients are at increased risk of developing osteoporosis.

Common symptoms of osteoporosis from eating disorders include:

  • Bones breaking easier than expected
  • Bone collapse
  • Repeat fractures
  • Stooped posture
  • Height loss due to spinal column collapse


When women lose too much weight, they may stop menstruating and ovulating, thus making it impossible for them to conceive. Although many patients will experience their period again after weight gain, some may be unable to conceive due to not ovulating (releasing an egg).

Although ovulation can continue after enough time and the restoration of weight and muscle mass, some patients require medications to help their bodies produce and release the hormone that stimulates the growth and release of an egg.

Heart Attack and Stroke

As previously mentioned, eating disorders can do immense damage to the heart. A study by the University of Waterloo reported that women who were hospitalized for bulimia were more than four times more likely than other women to have a heart attack or stroke.

Strokes in patients with eating disorders can be caused by electrolyte imbalances that occur during vomiting episodes or due to severe dehydration from food restriction.

Anorexia can also cause strokes due to the hardening of the arteries, making it difficult for blood to return to the heart from the legs.

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Mental Effects of Eating Disorders

Just as eating disorders can destroy a person’s physical health, they can do just as much damage to a person’s mental health. Eating disorders often begin due to underlying mental illness or body image issues, which often only worsen over time.

Depression and Anxiety

Depression, anxiety, and eating disorders overlap in many ways, sometimes contributing to one another.

For example, someone struggling with an eating disorder may experience depression and anxiety, or their depression and anxiety may lead to disordered eating for a sense of “control” over their life.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 42% of those with anorexia experience co-morbid depression, and 47.9% experience co-morbid anxiety. The same study showed that 70.7% of those with bulimia experience co-morbid depression, and 80.6% experience co-morbid anxiety.

Substance Use Disorders

Research from the National Institute of Mental Health indicates that 27% of anorexics and 36.8 of bulimics experience substance abuse issues. For some patients, drug abuse may start with abusing laxatives or diuretics to purge food and lose weight.

People with eating disorders may also turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the effects of their eating disorder. For example, a person may combat their lack of energy with stimulants or abuse prescription painkillers to cope with chronic pain caused by malnutrition.

Low Self-Esteem

Eating disorders often begin due to body image issues and a desire to lose weight, no matter the cost.

The pressure to look a certain way can influence people to take drastic, dangerous measures, believing that losing weight will improve their self-esteem.

However, this improvement rarely occurs as many people with eating disorders experience body dysmorphia, the obsessive focus on a perceived flaw in their appearance that does not agree with reality. No matter how thin they become, they will always think they’re fat.

In addition, eating disorders can lead to an overall worsening of appearance, such as:

  • Losing hair
  • Dry and yellowing skin
  • Tooth loss
  • Growth of fine hair all over the body (lanugo)
  • An overall sickly appearance

These effects only worsen a person’s overall self-esteem.

Suicidal Ideation

Unfortunately, suicidal ideation is common among people with eating disorders. According to research from Miami University, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people with anorexia, and suicidal behavior is elevated in bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

The same study indicated that one-quarter to one-third of people with an eating disorder have thought about suicide, and one-quarter to one-third of people with anorexia and bulimia have attempted suicide.

Getting Treatment for Eating Disorders

If you or a loved one is suffering from an eating disorder and want to get help, you have many treatment options available.

You can start by talking to your doctor or mental health professional to see what treatment options work best for your situation.

You can also try using the Eating Disorders Helpline offered by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) or the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline.

If you need help finding treatment options and don’t know where to start, you can use SAMHSA’s online treatment locator or call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) to find eating disorder treatment providers near you.

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FAQs on Effects of Eating Disorders

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious, complex health conditions that affect both your physical and mental health due to severe and persistent issues with eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.

The most common types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa:
    • Restricting type, where patients lose weight primarily by dieting, fasting, or excessively exercising.
    • Binge-eating/purging type, in which patients also engage in binge eating and/or purging behaviors.
  • Bulimia nervosa: Uncontrolled eating of large amounts of food in a short period of time, followed by a period of purging through vomiting, fasting, compulsive exercise, or laxative misuse.
  • Binge eating disorder: Uncontrolled eating of large amounts of food in a short period of time, but without purging behaviors like vomiting, fasting, exercising, or laxative/diuretic misuse.
  • Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID): Persistent failure to meet nutritional needs, lack of interest in food, or extremely picky eating due to sensory issues or anxiety about choking, nausea, vomiting, or an allergic reaction.
  • Pica: Repeatedly eats things that are not food with no nutritional value, such as soap, cloth, hair, string, chalk, paper, paint chips, metal, pebbles, charcoal or coal, or clay.

What is the best way to treat eating disorders?

The most common treatment for eating disorders includes behavioral therapy, medications to manage co-occurring mental illness, and support groups for people recovering from eating disorders.

In extreme cases, inpatient care or hospital stays may be necessary if the patient’s health is seriously endangered or outpatient treatment has proven ineffective.

What are the common effects of eating disorders?

Common effects of eating disorders include:

  • Infertility
  • Malnutrition
  • Loss of tooth enamel
  • Damage to the esophagus
  • Heart and brain damage
  • Osteoporosis
  • Heart attack and stroke
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Substance use disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts or ideation

What is the most serious consequence of anorexia nervosa?

The damage to the brain, heart, and other essential organs is often the most serious consequence of anorexia. Many patients with anorexia are at risk of heart failure, kidney failure, low blood pressure, heart disease, anemia, and other serious health problems.

As the patient slowly starves, the body will begin to shut down, ultimately leading to death if left untreated.

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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  2. Health Consequences. National Eating Disorders Association. (2018, February 22).
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  5. Smith, A. R., Zuromski, K. L., & Dodd, D. R. (2018, August). Eating Disorders and Suicidality: What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and Suggestions for Future Research. Current Opinion in Psychology.
  6. Steinman, J., & Shibli-Rahhal, A. (2019, August). Anorexia Nervosa and Osteoporosis: Pathophysiology and Treatment. Journal of Bone Metabolism.
  7. Tith, R. M., Paradis, G., & Potter, B. J. (2020, January 1). Bulimia Nervosa and Long-Term Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality Among Women. JAMA Psychiatry.
  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021). Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. National Institute of Mental Health.
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2023, January). Eating Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health.

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