Shedding light on the impact of eating disorders

Eating disorder charity Beat estimates that 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. When we think of eating disorders, we may typically imagine either bulimia nervosa or anorexia nervosa symptoms. It is important to note that alongside these diagnoses, other conditions also fall under the category of eating disorders.

Around 6.4% of adults show signs of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are associated with particularly high risk; for example, anorexia has the ‘highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.’ The physical manifestations of eating disorders make them especially dangerous. The health effects associated with disordered eating can be devastating and, for some, lethal. It is essential to understand the ways in which eating disorders take a toll on the bodies and minds of sufferers. This knowledge can act as a kind of harm reduction. Alongside understanding the impact of these conditions, we aim to offer insight into the types of eating disorder treatment available, as well as practical advice for loved ones.

What are eating disorders?

What is very important to remember is that ‘eating disorders is not a lifestyle choice.’ An eating disorder is a serious mental health condition that requires appropriate treatment and support. An individual can exhibit symptoms of ‘disordered eating’ without having a diagnosable condition. For that reason, the concept of disordered eating is considered to exist on a spectrum from ‘normal’ eating and behaviour constitutive of an eating disorder. Examples of disordered eating practices include:

  • dieting
  • fasting
  • periods of bingeing
  • making yourself sick
  • avoiding or skipping meal times
  • avoiding specific types of food
  • the use of diet pills or other medications to lose weight

There are a range of conditions that exist under the general umbrella of ‘eating disorder.’ These are specific diagnoses that are characterised by particular eating habits and practices.

Each of these conditions is included in the ICD or the International Classification of Diseases.

Research suggests that, of all of the people dealing with eating disorders,

  • 8% have anorexia
  • 5% have ARFID
  • 22% have binge eating disorder
  • 19% have bulimia
  • 47% have an unspecified eating disorder

At UKAT, we consider the full spectrum of eating disorders with seriousness. As such, all of these conditions can be treated in eating disorder recovery. Different conditions may necessitate slightly different treatments; for instance, anorexia nervosa treatment may differ from treatment for bulimia.

The impact of eating disorders

Eating disorders do not only affect the way that someone consumes food. Eating patterns can have a domino effect on other areas of our lives, causing significant physical, psychological and social distress.

EDs and mortality

Perhaps the greatest risk linked to eating disorders is associated with ‘elevated rates of morbidity and mortality.’ This can be due to several factors, including:

  • severe weight loss
  • suicide
  • sudden death (often related to cardiovascular complications)

This does not mean that eating disorders are a wholly fatal diagnosis; rather, it means that there is an increased likelihood of encountering life-threatening effects if you live with one of these conditions.

Physical Impact

Each type of eating disorder is associated with specific physical health complications. That means that it is important to educate yourself on the specific eating disorder you or a loved one are experiencing.

For example, those dealing with anorexia may experience:

  • anaemia
  • brittle hair and nails
  • constipation
  • dry skin
  • extreme tiredness
  • thin hair growing on the skin
  • osteoporosis
  • issues with homeostasis
  • low blood pressure
  • slow heart rate
  • organ failure
  • damage to the heart
  • damage to the brain
  • problems with fertility
  • issues with menstruation

Individuals with bulimia may find that they experience the following physical symptoms:

  • tooth decay
  • constipation
  • damage to the oesophagus
  • sore or inflamed throat
  • sores or calluses on the hands
  • swelling of the face
  • extreme tiredness
  • imbalance in specific electrolytes
  • gastrointestinal bleeding
  • pain in the stomach
  • acid reflux issues
  • bloating

If you have a binge-eating disorder, you may frequently experience the following:

  • changes in weight
  • bloating
  • pain and discomfort
  • constipation
  • dramatic increases and decreases in blood pressure

It is important to note that both restrictive and nonrestrictive forms of eating disorders can have life-threatening consequences. If you are concerned that you or a loved one are dealing with a disorder, then it is very important to access specialist treatment for eating disorders.

Psychological impact

Eating disorders can be life-threatening. They can also be life-limiting. For many people, eating disorders develop following periods of deep concern about their body, appearance, or self-worth.

These concerns can catalyse a range of complicated thoughts and feelings that then lead to disordered eating behaviours.

We often focus on how EDs affect food intake. However, they are, at heart, psychiatric conditions, and thus, it is important that we do not overlook the mental health effects of eating disorders.

Such effects can manifest as:

  • social withdrawal and isolation
  • exposure to harmful online forums or social media
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • perfectionism
  • depression
  • paranoia
  • feeling very guilty about food
  • feeling unable to stop thinking about food
  • difficulty maintaining work, school or other life commitments

Social impact

Perhaps more than other psychiatric conditions, eating disorders have been somewhat considered a social as well as psychological phenomenon.

Stigma and Stereotypes

For decades, research into eating-related psychopathology has posited the role of media and culture as central to the eating disorder question. Whilst this sociological approach has been beneficial, it can also contribute to some misunderstandings around the lived experience of eating disorders. For example, there is a strong association between young women and eating disorders. This can risk accounting for the struggles experienced by male and nonbinary individuals dealing with eating difficulties. Research indicates that 25% of eating disorder sufferers are male.

There is also a suggestion that eating disorders are a type of youth epidemic. Whilst many people first experience eating disorders during their teenage years, the spread of disordered eating practices is much wider than we may be led to believe by popular media. Eating disorder charity Beat noted that children ‘as young as 6’ and women in their 70s also exhibit symptoms of anorexia and other EDs. This means that there is potentially a large unmet treatment need amongst individuals that do not fit the image of a young, female, often white eating disorder sufferer.

Patterns of disordered eating

Researchers have identified that individuals who have a family member with anorexia are 11.4 times more likely to develop an eating disorder themselves. This stands at 3.7 times more for individuals with a family member diagnosed with bulimia. This indicates that eating disorders are particularly complex within the family unit. There is evidence that eating disorders are experienced intergenerationally.

However, eating disorders are not only linked to family experience; they can also be linked with a range of psychosocial factors, such as:

  • high levels of stress
  • vulnerability to anxiety and depression
  • perfectionism
  • difficulty managing emotions
  • difficulty with distress tolerance
  • experience of trauma or bullying
  • pressure
  • criticism of your body in formative years
  • difficult family relationships
  • involvement in specific industries associated with a specific body type
  • hormonal changes

Support for Eating Disorders

If you or a loved one experience distress related to any of the following symptoms, it is likely that you would benefit from contact with an eating disorder specialist.

  • thinking a lot about your body (including acts such as ‘body checking’)s
  • spending a lot of time thinking about or commenting on the bodies of others
  • spending a lot of time thinking about or commenting on food
  • regularly eating too much or too little
  • avoiding specific types of food
  • making yourself sick
  • exercise to compensate for eating habits

It is important to note that anyone can experience an eating disorder, regardless of their gender, race, age, sexuality or weight.

Whether you are looking for binge eating disorder treatment, advice on how to manage ARFID or inpatient rehab for anorexia nervosa, UKAT can offer confidential and expert support at our rehab centres across the country. Eating disorders can be suffocating; treatment aims to loosen the grip of your condition and work towards you regaining healthy control.

close help
Who am I contacting?

Calls and contact requests are answered by admissions at

UK Addiction Treatment Group.

We look forward to helping you take your first step.

0203 553 3757