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Anorexia health risks and dangers

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is a serious eating disorder that can result in a variety of medical complications, some of which can be life-threatening. Although the health consequences of anorexia can be serious and frightening, getting professional support can help individuals who suffer from this disorder heal physically and mentally. 

A number of treatments have been developed to help people overcome the physical, emotional, and mental health concerns of anorexia. Learning more about the health risks of anorexia may help those who are struggling to find appropriate treatment.

Last updated on 
December 19, 2023
January 19, 2024
Anorexia health risks
In this article

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is one of the most well-known and common eating disorders, typically characterized by a severe limitation of food intake. Aside from extreme caloric restriction and disordered eating habits, people with anorexia often struggle with:6

  • An intense fear of gaining weight
  • A distorted perception of one’s weight, body shape, and size
  • An obsession with what is considered a "normal" weight (or desire for extreme weight loss)

It is important to note that low body weight is not the only sign a person is battling AN. People can lose a significant amount of weight but still be in larger, straight-sized, or even “fit” bodies. In these cases, the condition may be classified as atypical anorexia nervosa (AAN).11

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Anorexia and co-occurring mental health disorders

It is not entirely understood why some individuals develop eating disorders such as AN and others do not. Still, there is evidence that this eating disorder commonly co-occurs with certain types of mental illness.

When examining anorexia nervosa risk factors, the condition has a very high rate of comorbidity—or co-occurrence—with mood disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder,  and several types of anxiety disorders.7 The drive for or preoccupation with thinness is often connected to rigid thinking patterns, including perfectionism.8 And a growing number of studies have linked the condition to autism. (1)

Combined, these types of unhelpful or irregular thought and behavioral patterns can lead to the development or maintenance of anorexia nervosa. Co-occurring conditions may also influence the health risks of anorexia.

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Physical anorexia nervosa health risks

The restriction of food that comes with AN often results in malnutrition, including inadequate levels of specific vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and calories.12 This can, in turn, lead to a host of health risks of anorexia, including both short and long-term physical complications. 

Still, medical history and genetic differences can influence the particular health risks of anorexia that develop for each person.12

Cardiovascular disease
Hormonal imbalances
Gastrointestinal issues

Mental and emotional health risks of anorexia 

In addition to the many physical health risks of anorexia nervosa, the mental and emotional effects of the disorder can also be significantly dangerous.

AN has a tragically high comorbidity rate with suicidality. The condition is commonly found to have the highest suicide rate among eating disorders, with suicide accounting for 25% of anorexia nervosa-related deaths.3,12

anorexia death rate suicide chart

And other mental and emotional aspects of the condition present further dangers of anorexia.

Depression and anxiety
Substance abuse
anorexia and mental health graphic

Anorexia health risks and finding treatment

Although AN is a severe eating disorder and the medical complications and dangers of anorexia are many, there are also many treatment options for helping people overcome the condition and the related health risks of anorexia.

Therapy to treat anorexia

A number of treatment modalities have been developed to help people heal from this dangerous condition, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has long been the leading therapeutic option for people struggling with anorexia nervosa.

Other forms of therapy have also been found to help, including:2

Some medications have also been found to help and may be used in treatment.

Finding help for anorexia nervosa health risks at Within

If you or a loved one are struggling with anorexia nervosa, reaching out to a doctor or mental health provider can be an important first step toward getting help. These experts may be able to help you attain an official diagnosis, which is often the first step toward receiving treatment.

Remote treatment for anorexia

At Within, we also strive to help. Our team consists of experts from several medical disciplines to help ensure all angles of the condition—and related anorexia nervosa health risks—are considered in recovery. Thanks to our app and online program, each patient is given a personalized treatment plan, which can be followed entirely at home.

Get help today

But regardless of where you choose to look for help, the most important step is looking. Anorexia nervosa health risks may be serious, but recovery is always possible, and it’s never too late to start on the path toward healing.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Kerr-Gaffney, J., Hayward, H., Jones, E. J., Halls, D., Murphy, D., Tchanturia, K. (2021). Autism symptoms in anorexia nervosa: a comparative study with females with autism spectrum disorder. Molecular Autism, 12(47).
  2. Muratore, A. F., & Attia, E. (2021). Current Therapeutic Approaches to Anorexia Nervosa: State of the Art. Clinical therapeutics, 43(1), 85–94.
  3. Guillaume, S., Jaussent, I., Olié, E., Genty, C., Bringer, J., Courtet, P., & Schmidt, U. (2011). Characteristics of suicide attempts in anorexia and bulimia nervosa: a case-control study. PloS one, 6(8), e23578.
  4. Comorbidities in eating disorders. (March 2021). Psychiatry and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 21(2). Accessed December 2023.
  5. Devoe, D. J., Dimitropoloulos, G., Anderson, A., et. al. (2021). The prevalence of substance use disorders and substance use in anorexia nervosa: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9(161).
  6. Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed December 2023.
  7. Calvo-Rivera, M. P., Navarrete-Páez, M. I., Bodoano, I, Gutiérrez-Rojas, L. (2022). Comorbidity Between Anorexia Nervosa and Depressive Disorder: A Narrative Review. Psychiatry Investigation, 19(3), 155-163.
  8. Dell’Osso, L., Abelli, M., Carpita, B., Pini, S., Castellini, G., Carmassi, C., Ricca, V. (2016). Historical evolution of the concept of anorexia nervosa and relationships with orthorexia nervosa, autism, and obsessive–compulsive spectrum. Neutropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 12, 1651-1660.
  9. Haines, M. S. (2023). Endocrine complications of anorexia nervosa. Journal of Eating Disorders, 11(24).
  10. Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. (2021). National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed December 2023.
  11. First, M. B. (2023). What to do about atypical anorexia nervosa? Commentary on Walsh et al. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 56(4), 821–823.
  12. Anorexia Nervosa. (n.d.). StatPearls. Accessed December 2023.
  13. Giovinazzo, S., Sukkar, S.G., Rosa, G.M., et. al. (2019). Anorexia nervosa and heart disease: a systematic review. Eating and Weight Disorders - Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia, and Obesity, 24, 199-207.
  14. Jáuregui-Garrido, B., & Jáuregui-Lobera, I. (2012). Sudden death in eating disorders. Vascular Health and Risk Management, 8, 91–98.

FAQs

What health risks are associated with anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is connected to several mental, physical, and emotional complications.

Many physical health consequences of anorexia come from drastic weight loss or maintaining a very low body weight, including a host of heart health problems, GI complications, and issues connected to dysfunctional hormone regulation.9,10,12,13

Mentally and emotionally, AN is often tied to other mental health disorders, like depression and anxiety, and tragically, the condition has the highest suicide rate among all other eating disorders.3,4

Which psychological problem is often associated with anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is, in itself, a psychological problem, officially classified as a mental health disorder despite its very physical presentation.

Specifically, though, AN is most commonly associated with mood disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and several types of anxiety disorders.7 The condition is also frequently linked to autism, which isn't a psychological problem but is a feature of neurodivergence.1

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