Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center
The term anorexia still comes with a lot of stigmas. Many assume that those who are suffering from anorexia will be extremely thin and underweight. Although being underweight is an important diagnostic feature of anorexia nervosa, it isn’t necessarily present in every case. The absence of being underweight can make the disease go unnoticed, sometimes even by the individual who is suffering from Atypical Anorexia.
What Atypical Anorexia Looks Like
The DSM-5 defines atypical anorexia as an eating disorder that meets all criteria for anorexia nervosa. However, despite significant weight loss, the individual’s body weight is within or above the normal weight range .
Atypical anorexia involves the same symptoms as anorexia nervosa, including restrictive eating, fear of gaining weight, and distorted body image. Those who have this disorder may even experience drastic weight loss, but they will not fall below the weight that’s considered normal for them. Even without a low body weight, those who suffer from atypical anorexia face the same dangers as those who are diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.
Atypical Anorexia and Body Image
Atypical anorexia is not a less severe form of anorexia. It can actually involve more severe symptoms than those present in anorexia, particularly when it comes to self-esteem and body image.
One study found that, when compared with anorexia nervosa, adolescents who were diagnosed with atypical anorexia were more likely to have lower self-esteem. Despite not being overweight, participants in the study who were diagnosed with it were more likely to report severe distress related to food and body image .
There are many factors that may explain why atypical anorexia can involve lower self-esteem. According to the study, those who suffered from this disorder were more likely to have a history of meeting the criteria for being overweight or obese. The study also found that 38% of those who were diagnosed with atypical anorexia presented with a co-occurring mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder .
There is a common misconception that if a person has a normal body weight, they aren’t suffering from anorexia. However, atypical anorexia proves that a low body weight doesn’t need to be present for debilitating and life-threatening consequences to occur.
Because many who suffer from atypical anorexia may have started out being overweight, they could experience dramatic weight loss but still be in what’s considered the normal weight range. In fact, some may even be praised for their weight loss and seen as healthy by those who don’t understand what’s going on. While some who have symptoms of atypical anorexia may eventually become underweight, even if they don’t, this disorder can cause serious malnutrition and damage to their health.
Dietitian Melissa Whitelaw of the University of Melbourne studies the health consequences of atypical anorexia. “What we are seeing now is that you can have a healthy body weight but be just as sick as someone with typical anorexia nervosa, including having the same thoughts about eating and food,” Whitelaw says. “We need to redefine anorexia because an increasing proportion of anorexia nervosa patients are atypical and more difficult to recognize” .
Without a proper diagnosis, those who suffer from atypical anorexia may not receive the treatment they need to enter recovery.
It is important to get treatment for anorexia as soon as possible to avoid dangerous and potentially life-threatening complications. However, for those who display symptoms of atypical anorexia, there are many challenges that might delay treatment.
The first challenge is recognizing that an illness is present. Those who are considered to be at a normal body weight may have the illness go undetected by medical professionals. Even when doctors identify the disorder, it can be difficult to get insurance companies to recognize that treatment is necessary, posing additional financial barriers.
Cases of atypical anorexia should be treated just as seriously as anorexia nervosa. It is important to acknowledge that not all instances of anorexia involve a noticeably low body weight. If you are struggling with symptoms of anorexia or atypical anorexia, help is available.
References: Conason, A. (2018, February 9). What is atypical anorexia nervosa? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/eating-mindfully/201802/what-is-atypical-anorexia-nervosa
 Powley, K. (2018, December 3). Teens don’t have to be underweight to have anorexia. Futurity. https://www.futurity.org/atypical-anorexia-nervosa-weight-1922332-2/
About Our Sponsor:
At Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialty care for women and adolescent girls who are living with eating disorders, substance use disorders, and mental health concerns. Our residential treatment and partial hospitalization programming (PHP) help our residents achieve lifelong recovery by combining clinically excellent treatment with spiritual and emotional growth. We provide care that is holistic, personalized, and nurturing, empowering women to be active participants in their wellness journeys.
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 a 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.
Published April 2, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on April 2, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC