Mental health struggles can significantly affect physical health. Eating disorders are one of the most noticeable examples of this, and 9% of Americans, or nearly 29 million people, have an eating disorder in their lifetime.   

During National Eating Disorder Awareness Month, Heart of Iowa Community Services wants to bring awareness to these mental health conditions and the treatments available to Iowans. We can help you or a loved one take back control of your mental health.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders are serious mental and physical health conditions associated with disruptions in one’s eating behavior. Some of the most common eating disorders include the following.

Anorexia nervosa: Commonly called anorexia, individuals who experience anorexia often restrict their caloric intake so much so that they can experience extreme weight loss and an unhealthy, even dangerous, lack of nutrition. This disorder is often characterized by a need for control, so individuals try to control their weight, how much they consume and what they may look like.

Bulimia nervosa: Commonly called bulimia, this eating disorder is characterized by binging and purging. Individuals experiencing this condition may feel a lack of control around foods and drinks and overeat to excess. To maintain a certain weight, they then purge by vomiting, using laxatives or excessively exercising.

Binge eating disorder: Those experiencing binge eating disorder often feel out of control and eat a large amount of food at one time, usually because food is seen as a comfort and way to fill an emotional need. This is the most common eating disorder in America.

What are the signs and symptoms of eating disorders?

While signs and symptoms differ by the condition, individuals with these common eating disorders are also likely to experience body dysmorphia, or repeated negative thoughts and feelings about one’s body.

Signs and symptoms of anorexia

  • Extremely restricted eating
  • Extreme thinness (emaciation)
  • Constant dieting and a fear of gaining weight
  • Low self-esteem and negative thoughts and actions about one’s body
  • Loss of fertility, such as a lack of menstruation
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Lethargy

Over time, those with anorexia may experience:

  • Weakened bones, anemia and a lack of muscle retention
  • Hair loss, brittle nails, and dry or yellowish skin
  • Low blood pressure and a slower pulse
  • Heart, brain or other internal organ damage
  • Drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time

Signs and symptoms of bulimia

  • A chronically sore throat or inflamed oral tissues
  • Swollen glands in the neck and around the jaw
  • Loss of tooth enamel, gingivitis and decaying teeth
  • Acid reflux and other gastrointestinal problems
  • Intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • Severe dehydration or electrolyte imbalance
  • Negative thoughts or actions about one’s body

Signs and symptoms of binge eating

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food in a short amount of time
  • Eating even when full
  • Eating fast during binges
  • Feeling a need to be secretive about what or how much they are eating
  • Feeling ashamed or guilty about eating
  • Frequent dieting
  • Negative thoughts or actions about one’s body

Those who are in an environment or position in which a person’s body or weight are often scrutinized or ridiculed — and those who are in an environment where some kinds of food or amounts of food are heavily restricted or thought of as shameful — are at an increased risk for developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders can also be a symptom of larger mental health struggles, such as trauma, because the disorder can be a person’s perceived coping mechanism to gain control over their physical or mental health.

Misconceptions about eating disorders

While it’s true that adolescents and young adults are the most likely age groups to experience an eating disorder, these conditions do still affect young children and older adults. Girls and women are more likely to experience an eating disorder, but there is an increased rate of males being treated for these conditions. In fact, for every three people struggling with an eating disorder, one is statistically male.

Other misconceptions include the idea that physical appearance and thinness are the biggest sign of an eating disorder, when actually fewer than 6% of people with eating disorders are medically considered underweight.

It can be possible that someone who is really struggling with an eating disorder considers their habits to be healthy as they may be influenced by the rise in “clean eating” trends and diet cleanses, popularly referred to as “diet culture.” As awareness advocates and medical professionals advise, all foods can fit within a healthy lifestyle, and moderation is key.

What to do if you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder

Eating disorders are treatable, and recovery is possible with the right support. The first step to taking back control is to admit that you may need help. Secondly, reach out to a mental health and community services provider like HICS.

If you are concerned about a loved one, gently share your concerns with them free of judgment. You may need to offer a listening ear several times before they are ready to ask for help.

Through individual therapy, group therapy or a combination of therapies, HICS can work with you and your loved one to address these complex mental health conditions.

Take the first step by reaching out at We’re here waiting with helping hearts.