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Understanding Anorexia Nervosa: A Comprehensive Guide on Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Understanding Anorexia Nervosa: A Comprehensive Guide on Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

What is anorexia nervosa, and what can be done to address it? Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by an overwhelming fear of weight gain and restrictive eating. This article delves into the signs, causes, and treatments for anorexia nervosa, providing essential information for anyone seeking to understand or help someone with this challenging condition.

Key Takeaways

  • Anorexia nervosa is characterized by self-imposed starvation, intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image, with multiple types including restricting, binge-purge, and atypical anorexia within the OSFED category.

  • The disorder stems from complex interplay of biological, genetic, environmental, societal, and psychological factors, with signs that can be physical (extreme weight loss, fatigue), psychological (distorted body image, anxiety), or behavioral (skipping meals, excessive exercise).

  • Treatment involves nutritional rehabilitation, psychological interventions, possibly medication or hospitalization, and requires a multi-disciplinary approach to address both physical and mental health issues.

Decoding Anorexia Nervosa: Definition and Overview

anorexia nervosa


Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of weight gain, leading to restricted food intake and significantly low body weight. The disorder often stems from a distorted perception of weight and a fixation on maintaining an abnormally low body weight. It’s important to distinguish anorexia nervosa from anorexia, which are not the same. The former is a severe health condition involving self-imposed starvation to achieve a certain body size, while the latter simply refers to a loss of appetite.

Anorexia nervosa usually emerges during teenage years or early adulthood, with a significant number of diagnoses occurring between ages 15 and 19.

Unveiling the Types of Anorexia Nervosa

anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is not a one-size-fits-all disorder. There are three main types, each with its unique characteristics and behaviors: the restrictive type, the binge-purge type, and atypical anorexia within the OSFED category. It’s important to acknowledge other eating disorders as well, as they can also have severe consequences on an individual’s health.

We will examine each of these categories in depth to understand their unique characteristics better.

The Restricting Type

The restricting type of anorexia nervosa is marked by a significant reduction in food intake, with no presence of binge eating or purging behaviors. Individuals with this subtype of anorexia nervosa often impose strict limitations on the quantity and types of food they consume, their primary behavior being extreme dietary restriction.

The Binge-Purge Type

The binge-purge type of anorexia nervosa presents a different set of behaviors. These individuals restrict their food intake but also experience recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by purging behaviors to prevent weight gain. To counteract the effects of binge eating, they may engage in compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting, misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas, and excessive exercise.

In this subtype, binge eating episodes, characterized by consuming large quantities of food in a short period, occur recurrently as a part of binge eating disorder. This binge-purge pattern signifies a departure from the typical restrictive eating habits seen in the first subtype of anorexia nervosa.

Moreover, individuals with the binge-purge subtype may also demonstrate secretive behaviors around food and exhibit an excessive preoccupation with cooking, recipes, and nutrition.

Atypical Anorexia Nervosa

Unlike the other two types, atypical anorexia nervosa refers to cases where individuals exhibit the characteristic behaviors of anorexia but do not have very low body weight or body mass index. Despite experiencing intense fear of gaining weight, these individuals maintain a normal or above-normal weight. This category reminds us that anorexia nervosa is not exclusively about the physical appearance but also about the psychological issues, such as the intense fear of weight gain.

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

anorexia nervosa

Recognizing anorexia nervosa can be challenging, particularly when individuals attempt to hide their symptoms. However, there are key signs and symptoms to watch out for, falling into three main categories: physical, psychological, and behavioral. We’ll examine each of these categories to understand better what we should be looking for.

Physical Indicators

Physical signs of anorexia nervosa are perhaps the most visible. These include:

  • extreme weight loss

  • fatigue

  • dizziness

  • fainting

  • discoloration of the fingers

  • hair loss

  • the presence of soft downy hair known as lanugo

  • in women, the absence of menstruation

Symptoms such as constipation, abdominal pain, dry or yellowish skin, and cold intolerance can also be indicative of anorexia nervosa. More serious health complications may include:

  • irregular heart rhythms

  • low blood pressure

  • dehydration

  • swelling in limbs

Even minor complications like constipation can significantly affect an individual’s daily life and activities.

Psychological Indicators

Beyond the physical symptoms, anorexia nervosa also has psychological indicators. These include:

  • Extreme dissatisfaction with their body image, reflecting a distorted body image perception of their body weight and shape

  • An underlying low self-esteem

  • High levels of perfectionism

These psychological factors can be central to the experience of someone with anorexia nervosa.

Comorbid mental disorders such as anxiety and depression are common among those suffering from anorexia nervosa and can persist even during the recovery process. Psychological indicators of anorexia nervosa include:

  • a flat mood

  • social withdrawal

  • irritability

  • a reduced interest in usually pleasurable activities such as sex.

Behavioral Indicators

Behavioral indicators of anorexia nervosa can offer crucial insights into the disorder. People with anorexia nervosa may often skip meals and deny feeling hungry as a means to control their weight. They may also stick to ‘safe’ foods that are low-fat and low-calorie.

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by a focus on food that may include behaviors such as preparing meals for others but not consuming any, and eating in a slow and irregular manner. Furthermore, excessive exercise is a common behavioral indicator of anorexia nervosa, often combined with severely limiting food intake. An intense fear of gaining weight can lead to rigid eating rituals and a preoccupation with weight control methods such as vomiting after eating and misusing laxatives.

Investigating the Causes and Risk Factors

Anorexia nervosa does not have a single cause but rather arises from a combination of genetic, psychological, and environmental factors.

We’ll examine these factors closely to better understand their role in the development of this disorder.

Biological and Genetic Influences

Biological and genetic influences play a significant role in the development of anorexia nervosa. Family studies have shown a higher occurrence of anorexia nervosa among relatives of those with the disorder, indicating a genetic predisposition. Twin studies reveal that anorexia and bulimia nervosa have significant hereditary components due to genetic factors. These genetic predispositions can lead to gene-environment correlations, where people may be exposed to specific environmental influences because of their genetic differences. Some key factors to consider include:

  • Family history of eating disorders

  • Genetic variations that affect appetite regulation and body weight

  • Neurotransmitter imbalances in the brain

  • Hormonal changes during puberty and adolescence

  • Cultural and societal pressures to be thin

Understanding these biological and genetic influences can help inform prevention and treatment strategies for anorexia nervosa.

Even certain temperamental traits, like perfectionism and sensitivity to reward, which are influenced by genetics, may associate with anorexia nervosa. Physical causes of anorexia nervosa include hormonal changes that control critical functions and a familial trend suggesting hereditary factors.

Environmental and Societal Pressures

Environmental and societal pressures also contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. The cultural emphasis on physical beauty and the societal preference for thinness, influenced by media representation of body ideals, can contribute to the development of anorexia nervosa. However, only a minority of those exposed to these sociocultural influences develop clinical conditions, indicating individual differences in vulnerability.

Negative comments from family members about eating, appearance, or weight can also contribute to the disorder’s development. Therefore, promoting healthy attitudes and behaviors within the family regarding weight, food, exercise, and appearance is recommended as a strategy to help prevent anorexia nervosa.

Personal Traits and Psychological Factors

Personal traits and psychological factors also contribute significantly to the development of anorexia nervosa. Some of these factors include:

  • Perfectionism: a personality trait frequently observed in individuals with anorexia nervosa and is often considered a significant antecedent of the disorder.

  • Need for control: individuals with anorexia nervosa often have a strong need for control, which can contribute to the development of the disorder.

  • Obsessive or compulsive behaviors: these behaviors are associated with an elevated risk of developing anorexia nervosa.

These personal traits and psychological factors play a role in the development and maintenance of anorexia nervosa, often influenced by an individual’s perception of their body shape.

Poor stress management and a focus on non-appearance-related achievements can be important in preventing the development or escalation of anorexia nervosa.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Anorexia nervosa is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. If you or someone you know is experiencing any problems associated with anorexia nervosa or suspects an eating disorder, seek medical help immediately. Early detection and treatment of anorexia nervosa can significantly improve recovery chances, highlighting the need for prompt medical intervention.

Diagnosing anorexia nervosa can be complex when individuals either deny the eating disorder or underestimate the seriousness of their condition, necessitating professional evaluation. In severe cases, hospitalization may be required to address:

  • severe weight loss

  • associated complications like heart disorders

  • serious depression

  • suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Diagnosing Anorexia Nervosa

Diagnosing anorexia nervosa involves a multi-faceted approach, including physical exams, psychological evaluations, and questions about thoughts, feelings, and eating behaviors. Part of the diagnosis process includes considering an individual’s medical history, specifically looking at weight loss patterns and body mass index.

Psychological evaluations are a key element in diagnosing anorexia nervosa to understand the patient’s mental state and relationship with food and body image. Blood tests are also conducted during the diagnostic process to check for malnutrition and other health complications that can arise from anorexia nervosa.

Approaches to Treating Anorexia Nervosa

anorexia nervosa

Treatment for anorexia nervosa is a multi-disciplinary process, involving nutritional rehabilitation, psychological therapy, and sometimes medication or hospitalization. The focus of the treatment is on restoring a healthy weight, addressing nutritional deficiencies, and enhancing mental health with targeted interventions.

We will further explore each of these treatment approaches.

Nutritional Rehabilitation

Nutritional rehabilitation plays a crucial role in the treatment of anorexia nervosa. It starts with initial caloric intakes of 30-40 kcal/kg/day for inpatients and about 20 kcal/kg/day for outpatients to support weight restoration. Caloric intake often requires continual adjustments, potentially increasing to 70-100 kcal/kg/day, to facilitate a targeted weight gain of 1-1.5 kg/week for inpatients during recovery.

After recovery, many people aim to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight, which requires:

  • an increased caloric intake between 50 to 60 kcal/kg/day, exceeding general population needs

  • Registered dietitians support the treatment by developing individualized healthy eating plans and educating patients

  • therapeutic activities like food journals assist in recognizing eating triggers.

Psychological Interventions

Psychological interventions are a cornerstone of treatment for anorexia nervosa. Regular sessions with a mental health professional form an integral part of the treatment plan. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is employed to treat anorexia nervosa by focusing on changing the restrictive eating patterns and distorted thinking around body image.

Family-based therapy and group cognitive behavioral therapy can also provide additional support, with the former involving the patient’s family in treatment and the latter facilitating peer support. Individual psychotherapy sessions concentrate on altering the patient’s cognitive processes and behaviors to combat anorexia nervosa.

Medication and Hospitalization

In severe cases of anorexia nervosa, medication and hospitalization may be required. Hospitalization might be necessary for stabilizing serious physical or mental health issues or to initiate weight gain. Antipsychotic medication such as Zyprexa may be helpful for weight gain, and sometimes medications are prescribed for period regulation.

Day treatment and residential treatment programs provide structured environments for intensive treatment of eating disorders.

Understanding Complications and Long-term Effects


Anorexia nervosa is not just a condition that affects the individual in the short term; it can lead to a range of physical health issues and mental health impacts that can persist in the long term. Physical complications include:

  • Endocrine problems such as hypothyroidism and hormone imbalances

  • Electrolyte disturbances leading to kidney damage

  • Cardiovascular problems like cardiomyopathy and irregular heart rates

  • Bone health concerns such as osteoporosis and increased risk of fractures due to calcium and vitamin D deficits

The mental health impacts of anorexia nervosa cannot be overlooked. Patients often experience high levels of psychological distress and often have comorbid mental health disorders, which can complicate both the course and treatment of the eating disorder. Some common mental health impacts of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)

  • Self-harm behaviors

Refeeding syndrome is a serious complication that can occur during the nutritional rehabilitation of those with anorexia nervosa and requires careful management to avoid life-threatening electrolyte imbalances.

Prevention and Support Strategies

Preventing anorexia nervosa and providing support to those living with the disorder requires a multi-faceted approach. Some key factors in the successful treatment of anorexia nervosa include:

  • Family support, emphasizing the need for developing healthy attitudes within the family towards body image and eating

  • Access to resources such as the National Eating Disorders Collaboration for evidence-informed prevention and treatment

  • Support for families and carers through organizations like Eating Disorders Families Australia

By addressing these factors, we can work towards preventing anorexia nervosa and providing the necessary support for those affected by it.

The Butterfly National Helpline and Lifeline offer confidential speaking opportunities to discuss concerns related to anorexia nervosa, with contact information being 13 11 14 for Lifeline.


In this comprehensive guide, we’ve explored the complex world of anorexia nervosa, delving into its definition, types, symptoms, causes, and treatments. We’ve also looked at the complications and long-term effects of the disorder, highlighting the importance of seeking medical help, prevention, and support strategies. Remember, anorexia nervosa affects not only the individual but also their loved ones and the community at large. By understanding this disorder better, we can all contribute to the wellbeing and recovery of those affected.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by an intense fear of weight gain, leading to restricted food intake and significantly low body weight. It requires professional treatment and support to overcome.

How is anorexia nervosa diagnosed?

Anorexia nervosa is diagnosed through physical exams, psychological evaluations, and questions about thoughts, feelings, and eating behaviors. These steps are essential for an accurate diagnosis.

What are the treatment options for anorexia nervosa?

The treatment options for anorexia nervosa may include nutritional rehabilitation, psychological therapy, and occasionally medication or hospitalization. It's important to consult a healthcare professional for personalized treatment.

What are the long-term effects of anorexia nervosa?

The long-term effects of anorexia nervosa can lead to physical health issues like hormonal imbalances, cardiovascular problems, and bone health concerns, as well as mental health impacts such as psychological distress and comorbid mental health disorders. It's important to seek help and treatment to address these potential long-term consequences.

How can anorexia nervosa be prevented?

Preventing anorexia nervosa involves promoting healthy attitudes within the family, seeking resources from organizations like the National Eating Disorders Collaboration and utilizing helplines for confidential discussions about concerns.

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