How eating disorders can be harmful

[4 MIN READ]  

In this article:

  • More than 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders. For many of those people, their eating disorder has led to malnutrition.

  • There are several different types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

  • Providence offers eating disorder treatment programs for both adults and adolescents.

When the topic of malnutrition comes up, photos of children in third-world countries might come to mind — children whose bones are visible and whose bellies are swollen.  

Yet even here in the United States, more than 13 million children are food insecure. And malnutrition doesn’t just affect those who are unable to obtain enough food — many people with eating disorders also suffer from malnutrition. According to some treatment centers, more than 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders. 

Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between malnutrition and eating disorders. 

What is malnutrition?

Poor nutrition isn’t just about a lack of food. Malnutrition occurs when the body is deprived of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients necessary for the muscles, bones, organs and other tissues to function properly. While people who don’t have enough food to eat are susceptible, malnutrition also may be the result of a high-calorie, unhealthy diet. It can happen to people at all ages including babies, children and older adults. People who are malnourished may be underweight, or they may be obese.

Malnutrition can cause a number of problems, including:

  • Increased risk of infection
  • Slow wound recovery
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Developmental delays and learning disabilities in children
  • Poor concentration at school or work

Malnutrition and eating disorders

Eating disorders often begin during adolescence, but they may affect children and older adults as well. These conditions often are accompanied by distorted body image and an obsession with one’s weight and food, leading to dangerous eating behaviors.

Left untreated, eating disorders can lead to other serious illnesses and cause permanent damage to bones and teeth, the digestive system and the heart.

There are several types of eating disorders, including:

  • Anorexia nervosa – characterized by the restriction of food and malnourishment, causing extreme weight loss 
  • Bulimia nervosa – features excessive and uncontrollable consumption of food, followed by purging through vomiting, laxative use, diet pills or other means
  • Binge eating disorder – similar to bulimia, with excessive and uncontrollable consumption of food, but without the purging of food

There are also different types of disordered eating like orthorexia which is caused by an obsession with healthy eating and AFRID or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder which is a form of extreme picky eating.

Warning signs of an eating disorder

How can you tell if a loved one has an eating disorder? The signs aren’t always obvious, and people are often able to hide their struggles with food. Early intervention is critical, and treatment often involves a combination of psychological and nutritional counseling.

There are many warning signs that could indicate an eating disorder. Some of the most common include:

  • Drastic weight loss or weight gain
  • Skipping meals
  • Uncontrollable overeating
  • Constant dieting
  • Fixation with body shape and weight
  • Obsessive exercise
  • Personality changes, such as mood swings or depression
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities

It’s not easy to confront a loved one about this issue because people with eating disorders often do not believe they have a problem. If you’re concerned, encourage them to seek medical care. Recovery is possible.

Seeking help 

If your loved one wants help recovering from their eating disorder, they don’t have to do it alone. The first step is for them to talk to their primary care provider. The provider can refer them to the right resources in their community and help them find their way back to good health. 

The Providence Adult Eating Disorders Treatment Program in Portland, Oregon, helps patients 18 and older recover from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. The program includes both inpatient and outpatient care, depending on a patient’s individual needs. People who are suffering from an eating disorder benefit from both individual and group therapy, as well as nutritional counseling. 

Meanwhile, the Providence Adolescent Eating Disorders Treatment Program helps patients between the ages of 13 and 18 recover from eating disorders. Our team works closely with both patients and their family members to support their progress through every stage of recovery. 

Even if your loved one is resistant to seeking help, continue talking to them about it. Malnutrition from an eating disorder can lead to lifelong health problems and, in some tragic cases, even result in death. Help is available — and ready for them whenever they’re ready. 

Find a doctor 

To schedule a consultation with a doctor who specializes in treating patients with these concerns, see our provider directory

Download the Providence App 

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make the Providence app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app

Related resources 

Youth mental health: Raising awareness 

How to spot signs of an eating disorder in your teen 

Disordered eating vs. eating disorder 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.