More than 375,000 New Jerseyans are so focused on their body image and weight, they could be facing a lengthy list of medical and psychological issues ... unless they get the help they need.

Mental health experts are highlighting the importance of the early diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders, and the fact that young, white females aren't the only demographic affected by the potentially fatal disease.

"Without intervention, anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental disorder," said Debra Wentz, president and CEO of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies. "A person may die from starvation, metabolic collapse or suicide."

Besides anorexia, typically marked by low food intake and frequent exercise, the other two most common eating disorders are binge eating and bulimia nervosa. All have significant psychological and physical consequences, Wentz said. Binge eating has strong correlations to depression, anxiety and guilt; bulimia can cause serious electrolyte and chemical imbalances, potentially leading to heart failure.

"The behaviors become compulsions. People feel like they have to do it," Wentz said. "The good news is that there are evidence-based treatments."

All of NJAMHAA's 144 organizational members offer various levels of care to treat people with eating disorders, Wentz said. Treatment options range from intensive outpatient care to therapy and medication.

"Not everything works with everyone, and it's not an easy condition to treat," Wentz said.

Besides the obvious signs that someone may be struggling with an eating disorder — skipping meals and extreme concern with body size and shape, for example — other symptoms could signal distress to loved ones and healthcare providers. Common physical symptoms include gastrointestinal complaints, menstrual irregularities, low thyroid and hormone levels, and impaired immune function. Eating disorders could also be signaled by extreme mood swings and withdrawal from friends and activities.

"The earlier a person receives treatment, the greater the likelihood of full recovery," Wentz said.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are currently affecting 375,668 New Jersey residents. More than 903,000 current residents will struggle with such a disorder at some point during their lives.

Over 10 years through 2009, Wentz said, there was a 58 percent increase in the number of men diagnosed with an eating disorder.

There is a misconception, she said, that eating disorders only affect white females. Research has also shown that LGBTQ individuals are at an increased risk of developing these habits.

Feb. 25 through Mar. 3 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Landmarks throughout the nation, including the Ben Franklin Bridge in Camden (through Wednesday), are lit in blue and green to put a spotlight on the seriousness of eating disorders.

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