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High Cholesterol Levels in Anorexia

author image August McLaughlin
August McLaughlin is a certified nutritionist and health writer with more than nine years of professional experience. Her work has been featured in various magazines such as "Healthy Aging," "CitySmart," "IAmThatGirl" and "ULM." She holds specializations in eating disorders, healthy weight management and sports nutrition. She is currently completing her second cookbook and Weight Limit—a series of body image/nutrition-related PSAs.
High Cholesterol Levels in Anorexia
Severe food restriction associated with anorexia can lead to high cholesterol levels and increased risk for heart disease. Photo Credit: ziquiu/iStock/Getty Images

Since anorexia, or anorexia nervosa, is commonly associated with extreme thinness and food restriction, it may be surprising to learn that cholesterol levels amongst those with the disorder can become dangerously high. High cholesterol is one of a number of serious, potentially life-threatening side effects and consequences of the disorder.

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Eating disorders are most common among American girls and young women, ages 12 to 25. According to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, one in every 200 American women has anorexia, and 20 percent will die of medical complications of the disorder, including heart problems. Dietitian, Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto, authors of "The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders," indicate that high cholesterol among those with anorexia, though not the norm, is not uncommon and that high cholesterol is most prevalent in girls and adolescents in the midst of acute anorexia, the time when one is actively restricting food.


High cholesterol in those with anorexia may be associated with the effect starvation has on the liver. Herrin and Motsumoto explain that malnutrition affects the liver's ability to metabolize cholesterol properly. If liver function is impaired due to anorexia, cholesterol levels are likely to be affected. High cholesterol may also result from anorexia-induced abnormalities in hormones, such as estrogen and thyroid.


Treatment for anorexia is complex and generally requires an assortment of methods, including individual counseling, medications, medical treatments or, in severe cases, hospitalization. Heightened cholesterol levels generally improve once weight is increased to a healthy level or gradually in cases of long-term, chronic anorexia. According to Herrin and Motsumoto, individuals with anorexia shouldn't be treated for high cholesterol through reduced fat or calorie intake--common cholesterol-lowering guidelines for those who do not have anorexia. Instead, those with anorexia are advised to increase fat and calorie intake to improve overall health and, as a result, cholesterol levels. Children may need to limit high-fiber, low-calorie foods such as fruit and vegetables during the initial stages of treatment, since such foods may overly fill their stomachs and prevent intake of proper nutrients.

Risks/Side Effects

High cholesterol levels, as in the case of those who do not have anorexia, puts a person with the disorder at increased risk for a variety of illnesses and conditions. According to the American Heart Association, high cholesterol levels increase one's risk for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke--some of the leading causes of death in America. Since those with anorexia are already at risk for a variety of diseases and complications at the hands of the disorder, those with high cholesterol stand at an even higher risk for cardiovascular disease as well as resultant death.


If you or a loved one is struggling with anorexia and high cholesterol, seek guidance and treatment from qualified a professional, such as a therapist, medical doctor or a dietitian who specializes in eating disorders. Though high cholesterol is a potentially serious side effect of anorexia, treatment of the disorder as a whole is of critical importance. Keep in mind that though anorexia and other eating disorders are serious illnesses, they are also treatable.

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