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  • Eating Disorders Begin in the Mind, Yet Take Their Toll on the Body

Published on February 04, 2014

Eating Disorders Begin in the Mind, Yet Take Their Toll on the Body


SIOUX FALLS (Feb. 1, 2014) – Whether it involves eating way too much – or too little – eating disorders are both a behavioral health condition and a physical disease that can threaten your health, and even your life.

The disease forces its victims to filter virtually every decision through the eating-disorder mindset: “I’m invited to a party where I might be tempted to overeat. Instead of arriving on time for dinner, I’ll go to the gym first, and show up after the food is put away.”

“The person’s life is focused on what she needs to do to keep the disease alive,” said Mary Dressing, LPC-MH, RD, LN with Avera Medical Group Internal Medicine Women’s. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from an eating disorder at some point during their lives.

The most common eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa, when someone is extremely underweight because of restricting food intake and over-exercising.
  • Bulimia nervosa, when someone binges, then purges food by vomiting, abusing laxatives or obsessively exercising.
  • Bingeing, when someone eats large amounts of food quickly, often resulting in weight gain.

While eating disorders are often associated with teens and young women, males can be affected as well. It’s not uncommon for someone who had an eating disorder at an early age to see the disorder resurface later in life. “Perhaps this happens when body dissatisfaction takes over around midlife,” Dressing said.

Eating disorders begin in the mind. “People develop a distorted image of what they look like, and become obsessed with eating, exercise and their appearance. They think they are fat, while those around them see them wasting away,” Dressing said. It often begins with dissatisfaction with one’s own body, and innocently resolving to lose weight. “Then it becomes its own little cycle,” Dressing said.  Family-of-origin issues and past abuse can also come into play, and shame rears its ugly head. In a life that seems out of control, eating is one thing that the person can control.

Yet eating disorders also take a physical toll. “Anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of all psychiatric disorders,” Dressing said. When a person basically starves herself, effects include malnutrition, low heart rate and blood pressure, wasting of the muscles, weakness, fatigue and osteopenia – a precursor to osteoporosis. While trying to eat less and exercise more to “look good,” people with eating disorders sabotage their own appearance with an emaciated frame, dry skin, brittle hair and even hair loss. People who purge can experience dental decay, ulcers and bowel issues that stem from abuse of laxatives.

Bingeing involves eating large amounts of food in a short period of time, and doing nothing to get rid of it. “People can eat thousands of calories at one sitting – they’ll feel miserable, but then they’ll do it again,” Dressing said. With bingeing comes weight gain, and all the complications of obesity – elevated cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease and more. “Eating is a way to become numb, and move into a place of apathy – a food fog,” Dressing said.

Eating disorders are intense, complex, life-threatening – and difficult to overcome alone. The care team may include physicians, psychiatrists, counselors, dietitians and more. “The longer someone goes without care, the harder it is to get into recovery,” Dressing said. “Yet it’s important for people in that situation, as well as their loved ones, to know that help is available.”