The Eating Disorder Basics: Symptoms, Risks, and the Need for Treatment

The Eating Disorder Basics: Symptoms, Risks, and the Need for Treatment

20 million women and 10 million men in America have an eating disorder. Eating disorders can severely impact ones health both physically and mentally. Learn more about symptoms, risks and what role treatment plays in recovery.

by: Kristin Burmeister

Eating disorders are mental illnesses that center around issues with eating and body image. These disorders include three main disorders, Anorexia Nervosa (AN), Bulimia Nervosa (BN), and Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Individuals with AN restrict their caloric intake, fear gaining weight, and have negative body image [1]. In the United States, 0.9%-2.0% of females and 0.1%-0.3% of males have AN [2]. Those with BN experience recurrent episodes of binge eating, in which an individual eats a subjectively large amount of food while due to experience a sense of losing control over eating [1]. These binges are followed by compensatory behaviors, which are attempts to avoid weight gain from bingeing, and may include self-induced vomiting, laxative use, or over exercising [1]. In the United States, 1.1%-4.6% of females and 0.1%-0.5% of males have BN [2]. Lastly, those with BED experience episodes of bingeing but do not experience compulsory behaviors. In the United States, 3.5% of females and 0.9%-2.0% of males have BED [2]. Altogether, 20 million women and 10 million men in America have some kind of eating disorder.


Individuals with eating disorders often experience severe physical issues. In general, all eating disorders can lead to “dehydration, irreversible cardiac issues, amenorrhea and menstrual irregularities, low bone density, osteoporosis, cognitive deficits, and mood issues” [3]. Calorie restriction, as seen in AN, often leads to low body temperature, constipation, dysrhythmias, and electrocardiographic abnormalities [3]. Vomiting behaviors, as often seen in BN, cause an esophageal or gastric rupture, gastroesophageal reflux, and dental erosions [3]. Additionally, binge eating can cause “stomach pain, blood sugar fluctuations, blocked intestines from solid masses of undigested food, bacterial infections, and stomach rupture” [2].

Additionally, eating disorders can lead to or be related to additional mental health problems. Many individuals with eating disorders additionally experience a comorbid disorder. Common comorbid mental illnesses include “depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive–compulsive disorder and substance abuse disorders” [4]. Comorbid mood disorders, such as depression, are very common and 94% of individuals with eating disorders have a comorbid a mood disorder [2]. The combination of physical and mental struggles that come with having an eating disorders makes these disorders very dangerous and sometimes deadly. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness mainly due to medical complications [2]. Therefore, eating disorder create a great risk to the physical and mental health of individuals.


Treatment greatly reduces the chances that an individual will suffer major physical complications from an eating disorder and greatly improves their chances at full recovery from an eating disorder. Treatment for those with eating disorders is often a lifesaving experience. Without treatment, 20% of people with eating disorders die due to complications related to their disorder, however with treatment, only 2-3% of people with eating disorders die [5].

Furthermore, the nutritional aspects of eating disorder treatment allow for the body and mind to heal which greatly reduces the risk of physical complications. Restoration of healthy eating patterns can also help reverse some of the damage an eating disorder has done to one’s body. Additionally, treatment helps individuals improve their mental health which greatly contributes to their ability to achieve a full recovery. With treatment, about 60% of people achieve a full recovery and 20% achieve a partial recovery [6]. Without any treatment individuals rarely make a full recovery and tend to have chronic issues with eating disorder symptoms [6]. Therefore, receiving eating disorder treatment is an important and life saving step on the road to recovery from an eating disorder.

[1] American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental

disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C

[2] National Eating Disorder Association . (2018, February 20). Information by Eating Disorder.

Retrieved March 01, 2018, from


[3] Rosen, D. S. (2010). Identification and Management of Eating Disorders in Children and

Adolescents. Pediatrics, 126(6), 1240-1253. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-2821

[4] Simon, J., Schmidt, U., & Pilling, S. (2005). The health service use and cost of eating

disorders. Psychological Medicine, 35(11), 1543. doi:10.1017/s0033291705004708

[5] Tracy, N. (2017). Eating Disorder Statistics - Eating Disorders Overview - Eating Disorders.

Retrieved March 01, 2018, from


[6] Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders. (2017). Eating Disorders Statistics.

Retrieved March 22, 2018, from

Looking for eating disorder treatment programs or services in the New York City area? Learn more about our options at BALANCE eating disorder treatment center here or contact us here.


This post was written by BALANCE blog intern Kristin Burmeister.

Kristin is a graduate student studying social work at Case Western Reserve Universtiy. Her own recovery journey inspired her to want to help others who struggle with eating disorders. In the future, she hopes to work as a clinical social worker with a focus on eating disorder treatment.