National Eating Disorders Association

The health risks of BED are most commonly those associated with clinical obesity, weight stigma, and weight cycling (aka, yo-yo dieting). Most obese people do not have binge eating disorder. However, of individuals with BED, up to two-thirds are obese; people who struggle with binge eating disorder tend to be of normal or higher-than-average weight, though BED can be diagnosed at any weight.

Cardiovascular system

  • Consuming fewer calories than you need means that the body breaks down its own tissue to use for fuel. Muscles are some of the first organs broken down, and the most important muscle in the body is the heart. Pulse and blood pressure begin to drop as the heart has less fuel to pump blood and fewer cells to pump with. The risk for heart failure rises as the heart rate and blood pressure levels sink lower and lower.
    • Some physicians confuse the slow pulse of an athlete (which is due to a strong, healthy heart) with the slow pulse of an eating disorder (which is due to a malnourished heart). If there is concern about an eating disorder, low heart rate should be considered a symptom
  • Purging by vomiting or laxatives depletes your body of important chemicals called electrolytes. The electrolyte potassium plays an important role in helping the heart beat and muscles contract, but is often depleted by purging. Other electrolytes, such as sodium and chloride, can also become imbalanced by purging or by drinking excessive amounts of water. Electrolyte imbalances that can lead to irregular heartbeats and possibly heart failure and death. 

Gastrointestinal system

  • Slowed digestion known as gastroparesis. Food restriction and/or purging by vomiting interferes with normal stomach emptying and the digestion of nutrients, which can lead to:
    • Stomach pain and bloating
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Blood sugar fluctuations
    • Blocked intestines from solid masses of undigested food
    • Bacterial infections
    • Feeling full after eating only small amounts of food
  • Constipation, which can have several causes:
    • Inadequate nutritional intake, which means there’s not enough in the intestines for the body to try and eliminate
    • Long-term inadequate nutrition can weaken the muscles of the intestines and leave them without the strength to propel digested food out of the body
    • Laxative abuse can damage nerve endings and leave the body dependent on them to have a bowel movement
  • Binge eating can cause the stomach to rupture, creating a life-threatening emergency
  • Both malnutrition and purging can cause pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. Symptoms include pain, nausea, and vomiting.

Neurological

  • Although the brain weighs only three pounds, it consumes up to one-fifth of the body’s calories. Dieting, fasting, self-starvation, and erratic eating means the brain isn’t getting the energy it needs, which can lead to obsessing about food and difficulties concentrating.
  • Extreme hunger or fullness at bedtime can create difficulties falling or staying asleep.
  • The body’s neurons require an insulating, protective layer of lipids to be able to conduct electricity. Inadequate fat intake can damage this protective layer, causing numbness and tingling in hands, feet, and other extremities.
  • Individuals of higher body weights are at increased risk of sleep apnea, a disorder in which a person regularly stops breathing while asleep

Endocrine

  • Reduced resting metabolic rate, a result of the body’s attempts to conserve energy.
  • Over time, binge eating can potentially increase the chances that a person’s body will become resistant to insulin, a hormone that lets the body get energy from carbohydrates. This can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Other

  • To conserve warmth during periods of starvation, the body will grow fine, downy hair called lanugo.
  • Severe, prolonged dehydration can lead to kidney failure.

References:

Brown, CA and Mehler, PS. Medical complications of self-induced vomiting. Eating Disorders. 2013;21(4):287-94.

Brown, CA and Mehler, PS. Successful “Detoxing” From Commonly Utilized Modes of Purging in Bulimia Nervosa. Eating Disorders. 2012; 20(4): 312-20.

Mehler, PS and AE Anderson. Eating Disorders. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.

Mitchell, J. E., & Crow, S. (2006). Medical complications of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 19(4), 438-443.