Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by excessive weight loss, irrational fear of gaining weight and a distorted body self-perception. Anorexia nervosa usually develops during adolescence and early adulthood. Due to the fear of gaining weight, people with this disorder restrict the amount of food they intake.
Anorexia usually starts in the teen years. It's much more common in females than males. Early treatment can be very effective. But if not treated early, anorexia can become a lifelong problem. Untreated anorexia can lead to starvation and serious health problems, such as bone thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, and heart problems. Some people die from these problems.
Anorexia (an-oh-REK-see-uh) nervosa isn't really about food. It's an unhealthy way to try to cope with emotional problems. When you have anorexia nervosa, you often equate thinness with self-worth.
Anorexia nervosa can be difficult to overcome. But with treatment, you can gain a better sense of who you are, return to healthier eating habits and reverse some of anorexia's serious complications.
People with anorexia nervosa usually lose weight by reducing their total food intake and exercising excessively. Many persons with this disorder restrict their intake to fewer than 1,000 calories per day. Most avoid fattening, high-calorie foods, and often eliminate meats. The diet of persons with anorexia nervosa may consist almost completely of low-calorie foods and or beverages like lettuce and carrots, popcorn, and diet soft drinks.
Are you anorexic?
Do you feel fat even though people tell you you’re not?
Are you terrified of gaining weight?
Do you lie about how much you eat or hide your eating habits from others?
Are your friends or family concerned about your weight loss, eating habits, or appearance?
Do you diet, compulsively exercise, or purge when you’re feeling overwhelmed or bad about yourself?
Do you feel powerful or in control when you go without food, over-exercise, or purge?
Do you base your self-worth on your weight or body size?
The following definition of Anorexia Nervosa is used to assist mental health professionals in making a clinical diagnosis. The clinical criteria is not always representative of what one living with anorexia feels. Please note, you can still suffer from Anorexia even if one of the below signs is not present. One can not simply read the criteria and think "I don't have one of the symptoms, so I am not Anorexic" or "I don't have a problem with food."
1. Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height (e.g., weight loss leading to maintenance of body weight less than 85% of that expected; or failure to make expected weight gain during period of growth, leading to body weight less than 85% of that expected).
2. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight.
3. Disturbance in the way in which one's body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight.
4. In postmenarcheal females (the absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles.
Restricting Type: during the current episode of Anorexia Nervosa, the person has not regularly engaged in binge-eating or purging behavior (i.e., self-induced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas).
Binge-Eating Type or Purging Type: during the current episode of Anorexia Nervosa, the person has regularly engaged in binge-eating OR purging behavior (i.e., self-induced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas).
Anorexia Nervosa - Symptoms
Feelings and actions
Common feelings and actions that are linked to anorexia nervosa include:2
Having an intense fear of gaining weight.
Restricting food or types of food, such as food that contains any kind of fat or sugar.
Weighing less than 85% of your expected body weight. (In a child or teen, losing or not gaining weight during a growth spurt is a concern.)
Seeing your body as overweight, in spite of being underweight. This is called having a distorted body image.
Exercising too much.
Being secretive around food and not recognizing or wanting to talk about having a problem with eating or weight loss.
Some people who have anorexia also make themselves vomit or use laxatives or diuretics to lose weight (bulimia). Breakdown of the enamel on the teeth is a common symptom of long-term vomiting.
Common physical signs of malnutrition from anorexia include:3
A low body weight.
Constipation and slow emptying of the stomach.
Thinning hair, dry skin, and brittle nails.
Stopping or never getting a monthly menstrual period.
Feeling cold, with a lower-than-normal body temperature.
Low blood pressure.
What are anorexia symptoms and signs (psychological and behavioral)?
Anorexia can have dangerous psychological and behavioral effects on all aspects of an individual's life and can affect other family members as well.
The individual can become seriously underweight, which can lead to depression and social withdrawal.
The individual can become irritable and easily upset and have difficulty interacting with others.
Sleep can become disrupted and lead to fatigue during the day.
Attention and concentration can decrease.
Most individuals with anorexia become obsessed with food and thoughts of food. They think about it constantly and become compulsive about eating rituals. They may collect recipes, cut their food into tiny pieces, prepare elaborate calorie-laden meals for other people, or hoard food. Additionally, they may exhibit other obsessions and/or compulsions related to food, weight, or body shape that meet the diagnostic criteria for an obsessive compulsive disorder.
Anorexia red flags to watch for
It may be hard to notice signs and symptoms of anorexia because people with anorexia often go to great lengths to disguise their thinness, eating habits or physical problems.
If you're concerned that a loved one may have anorexia, watch for these possible red flags:
Making excuses for not eating
Eating only a few certain "safe" foods, usually those low in fat and calories
Adopting rigid meal or eating rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces or spitting food out after chewing
Cooking elaborate meals for others but refusing to eat
Repeated weighing of themselves
Frequent checking in the mirror for perceived flaws
Complaining about being fat
Not wanting to eat in public
The biggest challenge in treating anorexia nervosa is making the person recognize that they have an illness. Most persons with anorexia nervosa deny that they have an eating disorder. People often enter treatment only once their condition is serious.
The goals of treatment are to restore normal body weight and eating habits. A weight gain of 1 - 3 pounds per week is considered a safe goal.
A number of different programs have been designed to treat anorexia. Sometimes the person can gain weight by:
Increasing social activity
Reducing physical activity
Using schedules for eating
Many patients start with a short hospital stay and continue to follow-up with a day treatment program.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that makes people lose more weight than is considered healthy for their age and height.
Persons with this disorder may have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may diet or exercise too much, or use other methods to lose weight.