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What are the health and social risks of an eating disorder?

Starvation causes many changes in the way your body works. Being undernourished affects your organs, blood, skin, hair and bones. Binge eating, vomiting, purgative abuse, dieting, and excessive exercise have many health effects, both physical and psychological. They also have social and legal consequences.

Physical consequences of eating disorders

Skin and hair

Many changes can occur to skin and hair, including: skin breakdown and poor healing; dry skin; loss of skin elasticity caused by rapid weight loss; bruising; stretch marks; wrinkles; callouses forming on hands (from sticking fingers down throat to induce vomiting); irritation at corners of mouth; growth of a fine body hair called lanugo; dry brittle hair; hair loss; and blue skin colour caused by lack of oxygen (known as cyanosis).

Heart and circulationFree Digital Photos Heart and Stethoscope

Your heart and circulation can suffer in many ways: a slowed heart beat (known as bradycardia); irregular heart beat (known as cardiac arrhythmia); dizziness when standing because of low blood pressure (hypotension); low body temperature and coldness caused by poor circulation (hypothermia); fluid retention causing swelling, puffiness (oedema) and weight gain; urinating, or peeing, a lot; low blood sugar causing dizziness and shaking; irritability; tiredness caused by mild anaemia (too few red blood cells).

Electrolyte disturbances

Electrolytes are minerals in your blood and body fluids. They affect the amount of water in your body, the acidity of your blood (pH), your muscle function, and other important processes. They are important for overall functioning of most organs, including the heart, brain and kidneys. Purging, through vomiting, using laxatives or dieting, leads to low levels of potassium, chloride and sodium. This may cause weakness, tiredness, muscle pain, depression, and broken blood vessels under the eyes.

Free Digital Photos dentist drillDental problems

The gastric acid from vomiting can cause loss of tooth enamel, tooth decay, and mouth ulcers.

Gastrointestinal problems

Tears in the oesophagus and stomach; reflux; stomach cramps; bloating; constipation; loss of bowel function, through using laxatives; irritable bowel syndrome.


Intense thirst; decreased urination; swelling; puffiness; headaches; fainting.

Menstruation and sexuality

Periods can become irregular or stop altogether; pregnancy can result when oral contraceptives are not absorbed because of vomiting or diarrhoea; decreased interest in sex; impulsive sexual behaviour.

Other problems

More infections because of a poorly functioning immune system; difficulty sleeping and tiredness from too much exercise; reduced bone density (osteoporosis) meaning broken bones are more likely; muscle loss.

Psychological consequences of eating disorders

Attitude to food

Preoccupation with food and eating; unusual eating habits; avoiding certain foods; distorted beliefs about food, eating, body shape and size; passing on unrealistic and distorted attitudes and beliefs about food to children.

Attitude to other things

Loss of interest in other activities; loss of motivation; depression (which can cause poor concentration, memory problems, difficulty making decisions, low self-esteem, feelings of being out of control and many other negative feelings).

Social consequences of eating disorders

An eating disorder affects the way a person behaves around other people. It can lead to: isolation; secrecy; mistrust; decreased sexual interest; poor school and work performance; a constant feeling of being watched by other people when you are eating.

Legal and financial consequences of eating disorders

People with eating disorders often spend large amounts of money on buying binge foods, diet foods, doctor's appointments, and gym memberships. They also frequently take a lot of time off work. The legal consequences can range from being caught shoplifting food, laxatives and so on, to being subject to compulsory treatment under the Mental Health Act 1992.

Written by the South Island Eating Disorders Service. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. September 2013


Images from Heart by ddpavumba; dentist drill by Suat Eman

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Review key: HIEDI-73561