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Anorexia Nervosa: Causes, Symptoms, Signs & Treatment Help

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia Nervosa is a psychological and possibly life-threatening eating disorder defined by an extremely low body weight relative to stature (this is called BMI [Body Mass Index] and is a function of an individual’s height and weight), extreme and needless weight loss, illogical fear of weight gain, and distorted perception of self-image and body.

Additionally, women and men who suffer from anorexia nervosa exemplify a fixation with a thin figure and abnormal eating patterns. Anorexia nervosa is interchangeable with the term anorexia, which refers to self-starvation and lack of appetite.

Major Types of Anorexia

There are two common types of anorexia, which are as follows:

  • Binge/Purge Type – The individual suffering from this type of eating disorder, will purge when he or she eats. This is typically a result of the overwhelming feelings of guilt a sufferer would experience in relation to eating; they compensate by vomiting, abusing laxatives, or excessively exercising.
  • Restrictive – In this form, the individual will fiercely limit the quantity of food consumed, characteristically ingesting a minimal amount that is well below their body’s caloric needs, effectively slowly starving him or herself.

Though two classifications of anorexia nervosa exist, both types exhibit similar symptoms, such as irrational fear of weight gain and abnormal eating patterns.

Woman Running at Sunset battling anorexia

Causes of Anorexia

Anorexia is not a simple disorder. It has many symptoms and effects, and its causes are complex as well. Currently, it is thought that anorexia nervosa develops as a result of multiple factors, both biological and environmental.

Examples of environmental factors that would contribute to the occurrence of this eating disorder are:

  • The effects of the thinness culture in media, that constantly reinforce thin people as ideal stereotypes
  • Professions and careers that promote being thin and weight loss, such as ballet and modeling
  • Family and childhood traumas: childhood sexual abuse, severe trauma
  • Peer pressure among friends and co-workers to be thin or be sexy.

Examples of biological factors include:

  • Irregular hormone functions
  • Genetics (the tie between anorexia and one’s genes is still being heavily researched, but we know that genetics is a part of the story).
  • Nutritional deficiencies

Joyous Woman Who Overcame Anorexia Laying in the Grass

Anorexia Signs & Symptoms

An individual suffering from anorexia nervosa may reveal one or several signs and symptoms such as:

  • Chronic dieting despite being hazardously underweight
  • Obsession with calories and fat contents of food
  • Engaging in ritualistic eating patterns, such as cutting food into tiny pieces, eating alone, and/or hiding food
  • Continued fixation with food, recipes, or cooking; the individual may cook intricate meals for others but refrain from partaking
  • Amenorrhea: an abnormal absence of menstruation, or loss of 3 consecutive menstrual cycles
  • Depression or lethargic stage
  • Development of lanugo: soft, fine hair that grows on face and body
  • Reported sensation of feeling cold, particularly in extremities
  • Loss or thinning of hair
  • Avoidance of social functions, family, and friends. May become isolated and withdrawn

Dieting Vs. Anorexia

Though the restrictive eating patterns that characterize anorexia nervosa are similar to dieting behaviors, there are stark differences between the two. The effects of the extreme behaviors resulting from anorexia nervosa are far more devastating and consequential than dieting.

While someone may diet in an attempt to control weight, anorexia nervosa is often an attempt to gain control over one’s life and emotions, especially in the light of traumatic events or a chaotic environment.

While someone might diet in an attempt to lose weight as the primary goal, in anorexia they may diet because they perceive losing weight as a way to achieve happiness and self-mastery.

Anorexia Treatment

Happy, Beautiful Smiling Teen Working Through Anorexia

Given the complexities of this eating disorder, a professional treatment team involving medical doctors, dietitians, and therapists is necessary for the recovery from this eating disorder. Effective, holistic eating disorder treatment of anorexia involves three necessary components:

  • Medical: The highest priority in the treatment of anorexia nervosa is addressing any serious health issues that may have resulted from malnutrition, such as an unstable heartbeat.
  • Nutritional: This component encompasses weight restoration, implementation and supervision of a tailored meal plan, and education about normal eating patterns.
  • Therapy: The goal of this part of treatment is to recognize underlying issues associated with the eating disorder, address and heal from traumatic life events, learn healthier coping skills and further develop the capacity to express and deal with emotions.

Search for accredited eating disorder treatment centers in our directory.

Articles on Anorexia Nervosa

  • Anorexia Nervosa continues to have the highest mortality of all psychiatric conditions.  Researchers from the University of North Carolina are currently leading the largest genetic study of anorexia nervosa ever conducted known as the Anorexia Nervosa Genetics Initiative (ANGI).  Learn more about how the ANGI study is set to find causes and cures for this disease.
  • Most women struggling with anorexia are battling a co-occurring issue as well. The difficulties that are presented make it complex to treat. Often, anorexia is existing alongside anxiety, depression, and substance. This makes treatment more complicated as all issues need to be treated at the same time.
  • Anorexia is not simply a woman’s disease. There are more men developing the eating disorder, but often, males develop anorexia as a way to keep weight off for competition. Sports such as wrestling, rowing, boxing, diving and many others require a male athlete to be at or under a specified weight. To “make weight” is sometimes all that matters to these athletes because it can be the difference between winning or losing, and for some, losing can mean a scholarship or millions of dollars. Male athletes are quickly becoming more prevalent.
  • The negative impact of anorexia can be as devastating as any other addiction or disease. This disease is a highly destructive disorder that harms a person’s body, mind, and spirit. It also has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder. Please read this article to learn more about “How Dangerous Are The Long Term Effects of Anorexia”.
  • Historically, research has indicated that those suffering from anorexia nervosa often live isolated lives and are socially inhibited.  Perhaps the decline in energy from lack of nutrition causes the person suffering to focus all resources on oneself to survive and thus external relationships decline in importance. The question remains: Why do some still suffer from poor social adjustment before significant weight loss occurs and after weight restoration? Read more about “Anorexia’s Ability to Damage Social Relations“.
  • Midlife issues such as traumatic illness, divorce, separation, empty nest syndrome and other life transitions can contribute to the development of anorexia. The pressures by the media and society to look ageless and beautiful also fuel the fire. Midlife anorexia typically is seen in women who have had an eating disorder in the past, those that have hidden their disorder for years and/or newly acquired cases of anorexia nervosa. These eating disorder sufferers need special treatment and attention directed to their unique needs in midlife and may need support to help them transition to the next phase of life with renewed strength and optimism. Read this article to learn more about middle-aged women and Anorexia.
  • Anorexia Nervosa is a complex and multifaceted psychological disorder. There are many symptoms of anorexia. Some easy to detect; some difficult with a medical background. Though difficult to understand, there are several symptoms to be aware of that may indicate if someone you know is struggling with this disorder. Such indicators include chronic dieting though not overweight, abnormal eating behaviors, and obsession with food or cooking. Awareness of these symptoms can help in catching the disease early. Learn more about the common signs and symptoms of anorexia in this article.
  • The transition to college is marked with wide-ranging emotions: fear, excitement, and everything in between. With the increasing pressures that college students are facing and the mass amount of misguiding media circulating about food and body image, it is not surprising that more students are struggling with eating disorders today. If you or a loved one is making an upcoming transition to college, it is helpful to set a healthy foundation now and surround yourself with positive support and resources. Read this article to learn more about what college students and parents should expect in the college transition and how to prepare for it and fight anorexia.
  • Until college, most students have been living at home with their families who see them every day. A person might have disordered eating and abnormal exercise patterns throughout their adolescence, however, it may be mistaken for “healthy” or “picky” eating or masked by competitive sports and athletics. Being at college and away from home for the first time, and only seeing family during school breaks, can allow severity of symptoms to increase before being noticed.
  • While we understand a lot more about disordered eating these days, it is important to know the origin of modern treatment approaches from a historic perspective. There was a famous starvation study done almost 60 years ago, which provides some excellent insight for those seeking to understand and empathize with the anorexia sufferer in their life.
  • Let’s be clear, to most people the word ‘diet’ means restrictive eating, and this approach is often a gateway to developing disordered eating habits. Yet, when we consume too much food, exercise too little and gain weight – our typical solution is to restrict our eating and exercise more. In fact, close to 100 million Americans are dieting at any given time.
  • Celebrities are speaking out on body image issues as well as their own battles with eating disorders. However, we do not often hear about the consequences that come with battling an eating disorder, in particular, anorexia nervosa and Amenorrhea. Amenorrhea is defined as the absence of the menstrual cycle in a woman of childbearing age.
  • It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change. This refrain reverberates throughout many weight control programs and philosophies. It is claimed so often, by so many diverse approaches, that it begins to sound like a campaign slogan, repeated robotically but lacking in meaning and depth.
  • Someone making the life-changing decision to begin anorexia treatment might be afraid of what to expect in daily life at a residential treatment center. Worries about the “unknowns” of treatment can be an anxiety provoking and keep people from seeking help. There is, however, an even scarier unknown, and that’s the reality regarding the dangers of untreated anorexia.
  • His pediatrician indicates that his heart rate is 46 beats a minute and all laboratory tests are normal. He has had two episodes of dizziness which he attributes to not drinking enough water while working out in a hot gym. His parents describe him as a highly motivated, accomplished young man, a little perfectionistic and rule-driven, and somewhat stubborn about his eating and exercise. They ask, “Is there a problem here?”
  • We find it heartbreaking to observe formerly vibrant and lively family members or friends become a seeming shell of their former selves avoiding aspects of a human life that add beauty and depth to our existence.
  • When walking along the days, weeks, and months of a life in recovery from an eating disorder there are times when questions come up of diet. For individuals with a history of anorexia nervosa, the question of whether or not dietary restrictions are ever appropriate is actually a very serious fact to consider.
  • Since anorexia is an illness in which an individual starves herself, weight is certainly relevant. But, for a diagnosis of anorexia to be rendered, there must be more evidence than low weight.
  • A review of nearly fifty years of research confirms that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder (Arcelus, Mitchel, Wales & Nelson, 2011). Anorexia Nervosa is a life-threatening disorder due to the effects of weight loss and starvation on the body and brain.

Page Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 1, 2017
Published on, Eating Disorders Information & Resources

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