What To Know About Eating Disorders

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Feb. 23, 2023

Eating disorders are common. These serious illnesses can be deadly. People with eating disorders can be underweight or overweight. These illnesses can affect anyone. 

“Eating disorders are serious because, without treatment, they may lead to medical complications. Also, there is often a correlation between eating disorders and other behavioral health disorders. Depression, anxiety and substance use disorders are often linked to eating disorders,” says Margaret dePrater, a licensed master social worker and behavioral health care manager at BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. 

What are eating disorders? 

They are serious mental conditions that lead to unhealthy eating habits. These habits damage a person’s body. The most common types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. 

Most people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25. 

What causes eating disorders? 

No one knows what causes them. Experts believe a mix of physical, mental and social factors can lead to eating disorders. 

Physical risk factors for eating disorders include having a relative with an eating disorder or a mental health condition. 

Mental risk factors for eating disorders include a need to be perfect, a negative body image and anxiety disorder.  

Social risk factors include weight stigma, bullying, and loneliness or isolation. 

Read more about the risk factors of eating disorders on the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website.

What are the symptoms of eating disorders? 

Know the signs of an eating disorder. The earlier the illness is discovered, the better the chance of recovery.  
People dealing with eating disorders may show signs. 

General behaviors that could point to an eating disorder include: 

  • Focus on weight loss, dieting and control of food. 
  • Obsession with weight, food, calories and dieting. 
  • Refusing to eat certain foods.
  • Discomfort eating around others.
  • Skipping meals. 
  • Extreme concern with body size and shape. 
  • Mood swings. 

Other signs of an eating disorder can be found on the NEDA website.  

What role does body image play? 

Body image is how you view yourself. This includes how you feel about your body, your shape and your weight. People with a negative body image are more likely to develop an eating disorder. 

“Body image may be influenced by social media, which often provides inaccurate portrayals of a healthy body. The images are often distorted by filters commonly used on social media,” dePrater says. 

A person can change the way he or she thinks about his or her body. The NEDA website includes 10 steps to improve body image. 

How serious are eating disorders? 

Eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness. Complications from eating disorders are the leading cause of death for people struggling with eating disorders. 

Anorexia can damage a person’s body over time. It can cause heart, brain or multi-organ failure. It can lead to death. 

Bulimia can cause throat issues, tooth decay, irritation in the gut, dehydration and hormonal imbalance. Severe cases of bulimia can cause strokes or heart attacks. 

People with binge-eating disorder eat too much food. Often these foods are unhealthy. This can increase the risk of medical issues such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. 

Suicide is also common. It is the second-leading cause of death for people who struggle with eating disorders. 

“It can be hard for a person struggling with an eating disorder to ask for help. Many individuals with eating disorders try to hide their disorders for fear of not looking ‘perfect.’ If someone does disclose his or her struggles, it is important to validate him or her and encourage treatment. Often, if eating disorders are treated early, a person may get support and learn the coping skills they need to deal with the illness. He or she may also be treated for any medical complications,” dePrater says.  

Anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide should seek help through the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. 

What should parents know about eating disorders? 

Eating disorders are common among young people. Model healthy eating. Talk openly with your children. Parents should be aware of the effect social media has on children and monitor their exposure. This can include limiting access.  

Parents should know struggles with eating disorders start early. About 80 percent of 13-year-olds try to lose weight. Anorexia is the third-most-common chronic illness in teenagers. NEDA offers a toolkit to help parents understand eating disorders and learn how to support their children. 

Studies show children are less likely to develop eating disorders or use unhealthy weight loss methods if parents focus on healthy eating and physical activity rather than weight loss. 

“Parents are important in identifying early signs of an eating disorder and providing support in getting treatment. It is critical that parents educate themselves on signs of eating disorders,” dePrater says.  

Parents play an important role in their children’s relationship with food and their bodies. Parents model healthy or unhealthy behaviors. For example, if a parent restricts food or is on an unhealthy diet, children may copy their parent’s unhealthy eating. If a parent exercises too much or too often, children may think this amount of exercise is good for them. 

“It is important that families view unhealthy relationships with food or exercise as a family issue. Children and adolescents often benefit from family-based therapy. In this model, the adolescent or child struggling, a therapist, parents, and sometimes siblings work to develop open communication at home,” dePrater says. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents help teens avoid eating disorders and obesity by following these guidelines: 

  • Discourage dieting. 
  • Promote a balanced diet.
  • Promote exercise for fitness, not weight loss. 
  • Encourage family meals. 
  • Avoid talking about weight. 

Eating disorders do not affect just girls and young women. Men and boys can struggle with them, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found up to one-third of those with eating disorders were male. Read about common myths of eating disorders online

How does someone get help? 

Treatment typically includes input from doctors, dietitians and mental health professionals. 

Research shows chances of recovery increase when parents are involved in treatment. 

Reach out to a doctor or contact NEDA if you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder. BlueCross members can call the number on the back of their insurance cards to find out how to get help. 

“Early treatment may decrease medical and mental health issues. It can be critical to helping someone recover from an eating disorder,” dePrater says. 


NEDA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are independent organizations that provide health information you may find helpful.

Links on this page lead to third-party websites. Those parties are solely responsible for the content and privacy policies of their sites.

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