Anorexia Nervosa: How is the Feeling of Starvation Ignored?

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Since the Minnesota Starvation Experiment [1] was published in 1950, we have known that starvation comes with extreme physical and psychological side effects. The disordered thoughts and behaviors characteristic of anorexia nervosa are intensified by the cognitive impairments that accompany starvation.

When an individual is starving, their body is severely malnourished, often leading to organ damage, circulatory problems, and much more. How can someone with anorexia nervosa ignore feelings of hunger and the other side effects of severe malnutrition?

Embracing Feelings of Hunger

Often, intense feelings of hunger occur when an individual begins to restrict heavily. It might seem strange that a human being can ignore these natural hunger cues, but the mind of someone with active anorexia nervosa can warp hunger into a positive thing.

In this sense, hunger is often embraced. To the individual, it means that they are “doing well” in their disorder. These hunger pangs might also be familiar to individuals who have struggled on and off for long periods of time, almost providing a unique sense of comfort.

That being said, it is not uncommon for those with anorexia nervosa to also take appetite suppressants or other harmful supplements to manage hunger. This comes with additional potential complications, as these supplements are generally not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can be particularly dangerous when combined with the other physical effects of starvation.

Over time, feelings of hunger often dissipate entirely. Many people struggling with anorexia nervosa no longer feel hunger or fullness since they are so disconnected from their bodies and their physical needs.

Ignoring Physical Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa

People struggling with eating disorders typically engage in disordered eating to cope with unwanted thoughts or feelings. The psychological effects of self-starvation magnify these unwanted thoughts or feelings, leading to a vicious cycle of maladaptive coping.

Ignoring the physical side effects of restriction on the body can become second nature to someone struggling with anorexia nervosa. As with feelings of hunger, the damage done to the individual’s body can almost become a marker for success to the disordered mind.

The general lack of self-reporting symptoms or seeking help for disordered eating highlights the strong need for competence in eating disorder treatment within the greater medical community [2]. Often, outpatient medical practitioners do not receive extensive training in the field of eating disorders, leading to lack of awareness and misdiagnosis.

By raising awareness for eating disorders and busting prevalent myths, the medical community, school systems, and loved ones can intervene early when they see an individual is struggling with disordered eating.

Getting Back in Touch with Hunger

In recovery, individuals who have struggled with anorexia nervosa often have trouble getting back in touch with their natural hunger and fullness since they have been ignoring these functions for so long. This is why meal plans are typically an integral part of the weight restoration process.

Eventually, many people in recovery are able to listen to their bodies and practice intuitive eating. This means honoring their natural hunger, fullness, and any cravings that might arise.

It should be noted that this is not always realistic in recovery, depending on your behaviors and many other factors that need to be taken consideration. If someone starts to backslide in recovery, getting back on a short-term meal plan of some sort is often encouraged, even if intuitive eating is a component.

It is encouraged that individuals and their loved ones be patient with the process of relearning hunger and fullness. After months or years of self-deprivation and not trusting your body, it can take a while to establish this healthful and intuitive relationship. Take as much time as you need and try not to rush the process.

When to Seek Help for Anorexia Nervosa

seeking help for Anorexia Nervosa eating disordersThere comes a point at which starvation can no longer be ignored. This looks different to each person. For some, it might mean being hospitalized for severe malnutrition. For others, it might mean fighting suicidal ideation or other psychological effects that can no longer go unaddressed.

If possible, seek help before it gets to this point. If you find yourself restricting to cope with anxiety, depression, loneliness, stress, or other unwanted feelings, reach out to a loved one or a professional who can get you the support that you need and deserve.

Courtney Howard Image - 2-17-16About the Author: Courtney Howard is the former Director of Operations & Business Development at Eating Disorder Hope. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate. After obtaining her certification as a life coach, Courtney launched Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching in 2015 and continues to be a passionate advocate for awareness and recovery.


[1]: Keys, A., Brozek, J., Henshel, A., Mickelson, O., & Taylor, H.L. (1950). The biology of human starvation, (Vols. 1–2). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

[2]: Spotts-De Lazzer, A., Muhlheim, L. (2016). “Eating Disorders and Scope of Competence for Outpatient Psychotherapists.” Practice Innovations 2016, Vol. 1, No. 2, 89-104.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 18, 2020.
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