How eating disorders can lead to malnutrition

How eating disorders can lead to malnutrition

  • Malnutrition is a growing epidemic in the United States.
  • Eating disorders may lead to malnutrition.
  • Left untreated, eating disorders can lead to life-threatening complications.

[3 MIN READ]

Malnutrition is a growing epidemic in the United States. With approximately 40 million Americans – including 12 million children – facing food insecurity, malnutrition is a problem that spans across different socioeconomic groups, according to Focus for Health. It’s also prevalent among the aging population, with nearly one-half of older adults in the United States at risk, reports the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN).

Eating disorders, another key cause of malnutrition, impact more than 30 million Americans, according to The Emily Program, a national leader in treating eating disorders, with facilities in Washington. These conditions are the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, and they affect people of every gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

In recognition of Malnutrition Awareness Week™, October 5 – 9, we’re taking a closer look at the relationship between malnutrition and eating disorders. Created by the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN), the annual campaign strives to raise awareness and knowledge about this often-ignored issue.

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.

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. 

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.

The signs of an eating disorder aren’t always obvious, and people are often able to hide their struggles with food. 

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.

Find a doctor

To learn more about eating disorders, or to schedule a consultation with a doctor who specializes in treating patients with these concerns, see our provider directory.

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Are you or someone you love concerned about an #eatingdisorder? Share what you’ve learned, ask questions or celebrate healthy victories @providence.

Related Resources

Cardiac Complications of Eating Disorders

The Role of the Family Physician in Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders in Older Adults

Malnutrition in Older Adults

Malnutrition in Babies and Young Children

Malnourishment and Poor Body Image

The Emily Program

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

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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