The Link Between Eating Disorders And Mental Health

An eating disorder affects as many as 30 million people in the US. But it is only when the illness has progressed past a certain point do patients seek and get the help they need. Too little, we realize that eating disorders are complex mental health problems that take a heavy psychological and emotional toll before they manifest on a physical level. 

People struggling with eating disorders set unrealistic targets about their food intake, body image, and weight. The self-destructive path that they choose to achieve these unrealistic goals affects their behavior, thoughts, and emotions, which has a knock-on effect on relationships with family and friends.

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Emotional Upheaval

Take anorexia nervosa, for instance. People with this eating disorder have an intense fear of gaining weight, and they take extreme measures to prevent it through self-starvation. Some individuals set strict eating limits, while others consume large amounts of food and purge it through unhealthy methods.     

Anorexia messes with your emotions and can manifest in constant irritability, fluctuating moods, social withdrawal, and obsession with food and exercise.  

Likewise, bulimic individuals struggle with low self-esteem linked to their body image. Despite being of average weight or just a bit overweight, their negative perception of their body may bring them to binge on large amounts of food then take measures to compensate through forced vomiting, laxative abuse, and intense exercise.

Similarly, people struggling with binge eating disorders (BED) experience distress after binging behavior. Unlike bulimics, they don’t take compensatory measures like purging, but the emotional upheaval may be as intense. 

Eating And Psychological Disorders

There is no single cause in developing an eating disorder, but biological factors like genetics may increase the risk. 

External pressures also shape how a person perceives himself against the prevailing beauty standards reinforced by pop culture and social media. These messages’ most prominent theme calls on women to aspire for slim, hourglass figures while pushing men to strive for muscular bodies to achieve success and happiness in life.  

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People with eating disorders work to achieve these unrealistic standards, which does them more harm than good. A well-meaning diet to shed extra weight may spiral into a full-blown eating disorder, developing into psychological problems like depression or anxiety.  

Although there’s some evidence suggesting that severe malnutrition can cause physiological imbalances that negatively affect one’s mood, people suffering from eating disorders often have existing or co-occurring psychological problems that make symptoms worse by amplifying the negative emotions associated with unhealthy eating habits. 

In addition to depression and anxiety, people with eating disorders might have a borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and substance use disorder. 

According to two separate studies, half of the patients diagnosed with binge eating disorder have a history of depression. Nearly a fourth (24%) of bipolar patients met the criteria for eating disorders. 

Likewise, people with anorexia are not exempt from depression, with tragic results. Studies show anorexics are 50 times more likely than the general population to die because of suicide. 

High Mortality Risks

The strong connection between eating and psychological disorders increases the former’s mortality rate. A study published in 2012 concluded that all eating disorders have increased mortality risks. Anorexia is recognized as a fatal mental illness with an estimated mortality rate of 10% as patients die due to starvation, metabolic collapse, substance abuse, and suicide. 

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People with eating disorders fail to receive timely treatment because they try to hide their condition due to feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment. If left untreated, it can lead to serious medical complications like heart failure, osteoporosis, gastric rupture, pancreatitis, and diabetes.  

Treatment 

The good news is eating disorders can be treated, and early diagnosis plays a big part in improving health outcomes. 

Given the close link between eating disorders and mental health issues, it’s essential to form a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses co-occurring conditions and involves a multidisciplinary team that might include a primary care provider, psychiatrist, dietician or nutritional counselor, and a social worker. 

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The treatment will likely include psychotherapy, counseling, and a medical plan that addresses one’s nutritional needs. The doctor may also prescribe antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication as needed.   

Outpatient treatment works for some people with mild eating disorders, but severe cases might require inpatient care or hospitalization in a specialized facility. Inpatient stays are usually followed by outpatient treatment and aftercare to adequately address the disorder’s underlying issues and reduce the risk of relapse.

Final Thoughts 

Some people might dismiss eating disorders as a fad, a phase, or a choice, but they are real illnesses that require immediate medical intervention. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating eating disorders, but early diagnosis increases the likelihood of reversing this disease’s health consequences. 

Anorexia didn’t earn its reputation as the deadliest mental illness for no reason. It’s best to get professional help when disordered eating is already harming your productivity, functioning, and quality of life.