Understanding the dangers of eating disorders

Aimee Aveyard
Author: Aimee Aveyard Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, can cause various physical health complications. Some of these physical effects are severe and can lead to serious illness or even death. Many health complications stem from depriving the body of proper nutrition, while others are injuries from purging behaviors, such as vomiting or laxative use.

Health risks and side effects of anorexia

Anorexia nervosa is a mental disorder characterized by restricting energy intake due to an intense fear of weight gain.[1]

The side effects of anorexia include:[1][2]

  • Blood disorders including a low white blood cell count, anemia, and low platelet count. Blood disorders can lead to medical complications, including bleeding problems and an increased risk of infection.
  • Dehydration
  • High cholesterol
  • Liver problems
  • Stomach problems, such as abdominal pain or cramping
  • Bowel problems, including constipation
  • Problems with menstruation, including irregular periods or an absence of periods
  • Sexual problems
  • Heart problems including a slow or irregular heart rate
  • Bone density problems, such as osteoporosis
  • Metabolic problems that can lead to confusion and even coma
  • Lowered metabolic rate
  • Feeling cold
  • Tiredness
  • Agitation
  • Lanugo, which is a fine downy body hair caused by malnutrition
  • Swollen legs
  • Broken blood vessels
  • Yellowing of the skin
  • Swollen salivary glands
  • Dental problems
  • Brittle hair and nails

Health risks and side effects of bulimia

Bulimia nervosa is a mental disorder characterized by negative perceptions of one’s body, causing patterns of binge eating, followed by purging behaviors such as vomiting, laxative use, and excessive exercise.[1]

The side effects of bulimia include:[1][2][3][4]

  • Heart problems including irregular heart rate
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Dental problems
  • Enlarged salivary glands
  • Sore throat, voice problems, and ruptures to the esophagus
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • Problems with menstruation including irregular or an absence of periods
  • Kidney stones
  • Acid reflux

Health risks and side effects of binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder is a mental disorder characterized by repeated episodes of binging on large amounts of food leading to intense feelings of shame or regret. Unlike bulimia, binges in binge eating disorder are not followed by purges.[1]

Binge eating disorder can cause various serious medical complications including:[5]

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Gallbladder problems
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sleep apnea
  • Cancer

Other dangers of eating disorders

Co-morbid mental health problems

Eating disorders are often accompanied by other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, substance use disorders and borderline personality disorder.[1] Treatment for eating disorders may also include treatment for an additional mental health issue.


There are strong links between eating disorders and addiction. Eating disorders could in themselves be described as addictions, defined as a compulsive need to carry out some kind of harmful behavior that is difficult to stop[6]. Addiction is related to the reward center of the brain. For example, when we take drugs or consume alcohol it affects our brain chemistry which in turn makes us feel pleasure. The same sorts of effects have been found in the brains of people when they are restricting, binging, or purging.[7] In addition, some people with eating disorders use alcohol or stimulants as a way of suppressing their appetite and controlling their body weight [1], which may over time lead to addiction.

Risk of death

Eating disorders carry with them an increased risk of death.[2] This varies between different kinds of eating disorder. The risk of death is increased for several reasons:

  • Complications arising from starvation and malnutrition
  • An elevated risk of health problems including heart disease, stroke, and cancer
  • Substance misuse
  • Suicide

Getting help

If you believe that you have an eating disorder, seek help as soon as you can. Most people with eating disorders don’t recover without support[8], so while there are things you can do to manage your condition, seeking professional help is important.

The first call could be your doctor, who can make an initial assessment and refer you to a. specialist mental health for support.

Eating disorder treatment is usually based around psychotherapy. Hospitalization is sometimes necessary, and medication may be prescribed to treat an underlying or accompanying mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or at an immediate risk of suicide, call +1 (800) 273-8255

  1. 1 American Psychiatric Association. (2013, May 27). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5 (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Publishing. Retrieved April 25 2023, from https://psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm
  2. Health Consequences. (n.d). National Eating Disorders Association. New York. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences
  3. Eating Disorders: What Are The Complications? (2019, July). National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. London, United Kingdom. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from: https://cks.nice.org.uk/topics/eating-disorders/background-information/complications/
  4. Eating Disorders. (n.d). National Institute of Mental Health. Bethesda, MD. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders
  5. Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity. (2022, September 24). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Washington DC. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/effects/index.html
  6. (n.d). Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/addiction
  7. Natalie A. Hadad, Lori A. Knackstedt, (2016). Bulimia Nervosa as an Addiction, Neuropathology of Drug Addictions and Substance Misuse. Academic Press. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128006344001001
  8. Help and Treatment for an Eating Disorder. (n.d) Beat Eating Disorders. United Kingdom. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/get-information-and-support/get-help-for-myself/i-need-support-now/help-treatment/
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Aimee Aveyard
Author Aimee Aveyard Writer

Aimee Aveyard is a medical writer with 20+ years of experience in communications.

Published: Jun 21st 2023, Last edited: Feb 21st 2024

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Morgan Blair is a licensed therapist, writer and medical reviewer, holding a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Jun 21st 2023