Anorexia, what it is, causes, signs and symptoms, diagnosis, treatments, support tips and more.

Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness that causes a person to eat so little that they have unhealthy weight loss, and become dangerously thin. They limit how much they eat or think, and they may create “rules” around what they feel they can eat and cannot eat. Or where and when they’ll eat. 


What is anorexia nervosa?

A drawing depicting a woman with anorexia nervosa

Anorexia, formally called anorexia nervosa, is a serious eating disorder where a person has an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. People with anorexia nervosa often limit the amount of food they eat, which makes them lose an unhealthy amount of weight, and lead to health complications, and even death.

 It’s not just about dieting or wanting to be thin; it’s much deeper than that, it is a complex mental health condition that requires professional help to overcome. It can affect both the physical and emotional well-being of a person, so it’s crucial to seek support from healthcare providers, and mental health professionals. If you are or know someone struggling with anorexia nervosa, get help immediately. 

Who does anorexia affect?

Anorexia nervosa can affect people of any age, gender, or background. It is most commonly seen in adolescents and young adults, particularly women, but it can also impact men, and people of all ages. Anorexia does not discriminate and can affect anyone, regardless of their descent. If you or someone you know is struggling with anorexia, it’s important to seek help and support from healthcare professionals.

How common is anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is relatively uncommon compared to other eating disorders, but it is a serious mental health condition that can have severe consequences. It is estimated that about 0.9% of women and 0.3% of men will experience anorexia nervosa at some point in their lives.


What are the symptoms of anorexia?

It can be quite difficult to tell if a person is anorexic just by their appearance, because anorexia doesn’t only depend on the physical appearance, but also involves mental and behavioral factors. A person doesn’t need to be low in body weight to be anorexic. Even people who weigh extremely high can also have anorexia. 

However, they may be less likely to be diagnosed due to cultural stigma against people with high body weight. Because most people believe you can’t have anorexia and be weighed so much. Forgetting that anorexia also includes psychological and behavioral problems. In addition, someone can weigh very little without having anorexia.

Emotional and mental signs of anorexia

Here are some common signs:

  • Thinking you’re high in weight when in reality you’re you weigh less.
  •  Intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Being very hard on yourself ( being self-critical).
  • Fear of certain foods or food groups.
  • Unable to realistically see and assess your body weight and shape (distorted self-image).
  • Obsession with food, counting calories, and dieting.
  • Always wanting to be in control.
  • Feeling irritable and/or depressed.
  • Denial of the seriousness of low body weight or eating habits.
  • Experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
  • Insomnia.

Behavioral signs of anorexia 

Here are some behavioral signs of anorexia nervosa:

  • Excessive exercise or compulsive physical activity to burn calories.
  • Always say you’re extremely high in weight, whereas you’re not.
  • Going to the bathroom immediately after eating.
  • Making changes in dietary preferences out of the blue, suddenly eliminating certain food types of groups.
  • Happy to make meals for others but not yourself.
  • Persistent dieting regardless of how low your weight is for your sex, height, and stature.
  • Using diet pills or appetite suppressants 
  • Intentionally trying to make yourself puke and/ or misusing laxatives or diuretics. 
  • Social withdrawal and isolation 
  • Wearing loose clothing and/ or wearing layers to hide weight loss and stay warm 
  • Obsessive rituals around food preparation or eating. 

Physical signs and symptoms of anorexia 

The most well-known physical signs of anorexia are low body weight for a person’s height, sex, and stature. 

However, it’s important to remember that someone can have anorexia without being low in weight. In addition to weight-related signs of anorexia, there are also physical symptoms that are side effects of starvation and malnutrition. Let us review them.

Physical signs of anorexia include:

  • Significant weight loss in weeks or several months.
  • Strange change in growth curve or body mass index (BMI) in children and young adults. 
  • Inability to sustain an adequate body weight based on your height, age, sex, stature, and physical health.
  • Physical symptoms of anorexia that occur due to constant starvation and malnutrition include:
  • Hair loss or thinning.
  • Irregular or absent menstrual periods in females.
  • Dizziness and/ or fainting.
  • Fatigue and weakness 
  • Cold intolerance or feeling cold all the time.
  • Low blood pressure (hypotension).
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Brittle nails
  • Dry skin 
  • Poor concentration and inability to focus.
  • Muscle weakness and loss of muscle mass.
  • Poor wound healing and frequent illness.
  • Giddiness or fainting.
  • Dehydration.

Long term effects

  • Like any eating disorder, anorexia can have long-term physical effects, some of which may be permanent, including:
  • Heart problems 
  • Weakened immune system 
  • osteoporosis 
  • Erosion of tooth enamel
  • Difficulty getting pregnant (infertility)
  • Damage to other organs, such as the kidneys, bowels, and liver.
  • Delayed onset of puberty or an abrupt stop in growth in children and young teenagers.

In a more serious sense, anorexia can be fatal if it is not treated as soon as possible. However, many physical effects of anorexia are reversible or can be prevented from worsening, and eating disorders are treatable, which makes full recovery possible. 

What causes anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia and all eating disorders are complex conditions. Because of this, the exact cause of it is unknown, but research suggests that a combination of certain genetic factors, psychological traits, and environmental factors, especially sociocultural factors, might be responsible.

Let’s look at the factors that may be involved in developing anorexia:

1. Genetics

Some research suggests that genetics may play a role in the development of anorexia. Research suggests that approximately 50% to 80% of the risk of developing an eating disorder is genetic. Those with a family history of eating disorders may be at risk of developing anorexia nervosa.

2. Emotional health

Low self-esteem, perfectionism, and negative body image can contribute to the development of anorexia. People with anorexia often have distorted thoughts about their body shape and weight. 

3. Sociocultural influences

Pressures from the media, peers, or societal norms that emphasize thinness can influence people to pursue extreme weight loss behaviors, leading to anorexia. 

4. Traumatic events

Past traumas or stressful life events, such as physical abuse or sexual assault, bullying, or loss, can trigger the onset of anorexia as people will attempt to cope with overwhelming feelings and painful emotions by limiting food as a coping mechanism.

5. Family dynamics

Family dynamics, such as a history of eating disorders within the family or dysfunctional relationships, can put a person at risk of developing anorexia.

6. Personality traits

Certain personality traits, like rigidity, impulsivity, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies, may increase the vulnerability to developing anorexia nervosa.

7. Dieting and weight loss

Extreme dieting, and excessive focus on weight loss or engaging in restrictive eating patterns, may be associated with an increased risk of developing anorexia. 

8 . Environmental factors

Stressful environments, significant life changes, or pressure from academics or work-related stress can trigger the onset of anorexia in susceptible people.

9 . Cooccurring mental health disorders

Conditions like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse can co-occur with anorexia and may exacerbate the disorder or complicate treatment.

Let me tell you something, it’s important to note that there’s no single path to an eating disorder or anorexia. For many people, irregular eating behaviors (also called “disordered eating”) represent an inappropriate coping strategy that becomes permanent over time. This pathway to disordered eating is true for some, but not all, who develop anorexia. However, it’s still essential to understand these causes, because they can provide insight into the complex nature of anorexia nervosa and the various factors that contribute to its development.

How is it diagnosed? ( a simplified explanation) 

To diagnose anorexia nervosa, healthcare professionals typically use a combination of physical exams, psychological evaluations, and discussions about the patient’s eating habits and weight loss. They may also use specific criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This manual helps doctors determine if a person meets the criteria for anorexia nervosa based on factors like weight loss, body image disturbance, and fear of gaining weight. If someone is suspected of having anorexia, it’s crucial to seek help from a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

What are the treatment options for anorexia nervosa?

Treatment options for anorexia typically involve a combination of therapies, including medical, nutritional, and psychological interventions. The patient may need medical treatment to address any physical complications resulting from the disorder, such as malnutrition or electrolyte imbalances. 

Nutritional therapy aims to restore healthy eating habits and weight. Psychological interventions like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help address the underlying thoughts, and behaviors contributing to the disorder. Family therapy and support groups can also be beneficial in the treatment of anorexia. It’s important to seek professional help to determine the most suitable treatment plan for your needs.

What are some common challenges in treating anorexia nervosa?

Some common challenges in treating anorexia include the patient’s resistance to treatment, denial of the severity of the illness, and difficulty in changing deep-rooted behaviors, and thoughts related to food and body image. 

Additionally, medical complications resulting from severe malnutrition can complicate treatment efforts. Treatment must be comprehensive, addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of the disorder, and for the patient to be actively engaged in their recovery process. 

Support from healthcare professionals, family, and friends is also essential in overcoming these challenges. 

Difference between anorexia nervosa and bulimia

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are both eating disorders, but they have some key differences. Anorexia nervosa involves severe restriction of food intake, leading to significantly low body weight. People with anorexia often have an intense fear of gaining weight, and have a distorted body image. 

On the other hand, bulimia involves episodes of binge eating followed by behaviors to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting, the use of laxatives, or excessive exercise. People with bulimia may maintain a relatively normal weight or be overweight. Both disorders can have serious health consequences and require professional help for treatment. 

Follow these simple guidelines to take care of yourself if you’re anorexic.

It can be uncomfortable and scary, but it’s important to tell a loved one and/or your healthcare provider if you have anorexia. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

If you have already been diagnosed with anorexia, there are some things you can do to for yourself to manage your condition and speed up your recovery process. They are:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Reaching out to family and friends for support.
  • Don’t abuse alcohol or drugs.
  • Thrash anything that represents your period of anorexia, such as journals, a diary, and videos.
  • Consider joining a support group for people with anorexia.
  • Don’t miss or skip any prescribed medication.
  • Regularly see your therapist and communicate with them if you’re participating in talk therapy.
  • Watch your favorite cartoons or movies. 
  • Practice words of affirmation.
  • Engage in fun activities.
  • See your healthcare provider regularly.

You’re not a weakling 

Sometimes life happens, and unpleasant things occur, and every person has a different way of managing bad times. However, if you’re suffering from anorexia, don’t ever think it’s because you are weak. You will get through this, you’ll be happy and healthy again, just trust the process and trust yourself, Always remember that you’re not alone, and your life experiences shouldn’t define your worth. You’re beautiful and strong. You’re going to be just fine.

Here are some articles that’ll improve your mental health!

How to prevent anorexia  

To prevent anorexia nervosa, it’s important to promote a healthy body image and self-esteem. As a parent or guardian, try to encourage a balanced approach to eating and exercise in your child/ children. Also, be open to communicating about emotions and stress to your kids, it can help prevent the development of eating disorders in them. In addition, seeking support from friends, family, or mental health professionals can also be beneficial in preventing it. 

Here are amazing ways to support someone with anorexia.

Steal these beautiful ways to support an anorexic person, whether it’s a loved one or a friendly neighbor:

1. Encourage them to seek professional help from therapists, dietitians, or doctors specializing in eating disorders. Try not to force them to get them, instead help them understand that you care and want them to get better.

2. Offer emotional support and be a good listener without judgment, do not be dismissive of their feelings, and/ or reasons behind their actions. 

3. Avoid commenting on their appearance or food choices. Be kind to them, and don’t pick on them. 

4. Encourage healthy behaviors and self-care practices. You can start by showing them and taking them along these steps, it helps when they have visuals.

5. Educate yourself about anorexia to better understand their struggles. Just like you are reading this article to help you understand the whole story behind anorexia. 

6. Be patient and understanding as recovery takes time, don’t complain or make statements like “You should have been feeling better by now”. It’s completely wrong to do so, no matter how quickly you wish their recovery, stay positive. 

7. Help them create a supportive environment that promotes positive body image and healthy eating habits.

How to promote a healthy body image

One of the top issues that cause eating disorders in young adults, is negative body image. How you see yourself is very important and must be taken seriously. Negative body image is a very serious issue, and can make it difficult for a person to live well. However, you can practice the best ways to promote a healthy body image. If you don’t know how to do it, keep reading and follow these tips:

1. Practice selflove: Treat yourself with kindness and compassion, even if there are some icky things you don’t like about yourself, still stay positive and try to improve. 

2. Surround yourself with positivity: Spend time with people who uplift and support you. 

3. Appreciate your body: Focus on what your body can do rather than how it looks. Cherish it, smile at it, hug it, and show it love. 

4. Challenge unrealistic beauty standards: Remember that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, you don’t need to look like what’s trending. Your body is with you till the end, trends come and go, so don’t bother yourself with such things. Instead, find amusement in them and just move on.

5. Limit exposure to negative influences: Unfollow social media accounts that make you feel inadequate, or make you question your worth. Although, it depends on what the person is sharing, if they have a negative view on people’s bodies, then, by all means, eliminate them. 

However, if they’re innocently doing their thing, and you choose to question yourself, you need to stop, because even if you unfollow this one, what about the next person? You know you can’t keep unfollowing and unfollowing, you gotta stop comparing yourself, and just enjoy what they’re doing. 

6. Practice mindfulness: Stay present and appreciate your body for all it does for you. 

7. Seek professional help if needed: Therapy or counseling can provide valuable support in building a positive body image. So, don’t be shy, it’s okay to seek help if you know you need it. Remember that it doesn’t make you weak, but strong!

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