Anorexia Nervosa

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is both a psychiatric condition and a form of eating disorder wherein the individual refuses to maintain a healthy body weight because they feel pressure from society to be thin.  Those who battle with anorexia nervosa also tend to have low self-esteem and are not comfortable with how their bodies looks.

Anorexia nervosa affects mostly teenage girls and in some cases boys.  Anorexia nervosa occurs predominantly among girls within the middle and upper socioeconomic levels who are white.  There is less prevalence of anorexia nervosa among people of color who are poor.  Anorexia nervosa affects 0.3% of the male population and 1% of the female population.  People with anorexia nervosa tend to be compulsive and mimic behaviors associated with addiction.

What are the Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa?

While females with anorexia nervosa are dissatisfied with how their bodies looks and tend to be perfectionists, men who suffer from anorexia nervosa tend to have other psychiatric conditions. Those who suffer from anorexia nervosa are obsessed with controlling their emotions, their weight, and their reaction to their emotions. In addition, those battling anorexia nervosa tend to feel unworthy of experiencing pleasure of any kind including eating. It’s also important to understand that anorexia nervosa can be life threatening.

Symptoms include

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa include dramatic weight loss within a short period, wearing baggy clothing to hide the weight loss and to keep people from seeing what their bodies look like. Anorexia nervosa sufferers have an intense fear of eating food with and around other people, are obsessed with dieting and exercise, constantly check the fat and calorie content of foods, are visibly starving themselves, eat in secret and, at a later stage, experience visible hair loss, and their skin becomes gray. Those suffering from anorexia nervosa may also experience insomnia, low blood pressure, and females tend to lose their menstrual cycles.

Anorexia Nervosa Causes

It is not completely clear exactly what causes anorexia, but it is thought that it could be a combination of biological and environmental factors.

Firstly, anorexia may occur as a desire for thinness. This might be perpetuated by peer pressure among friends, coworkers or classmates, through imagery in the media which reinforces thinness as the ideal, or by particular professions or careers that traditionally require thinness, such as modeling or ballet dancing.

Secondly, some cases of anorexia may be caused by trauma experienced by the sufferer. Emotional and physical trauma such as sexual or physical abuse, particularly when experienced as a child, might cause an individual to begin restricting their diet, perhaps in an attempt to punish themselves or as an attempt to regain some control over their lives.

Biologically, scientists also believe that irregular hormone functions and nutritional deficiencies could cause anorexia. It is also understood that genetics is involved and that some people are simply predisposed to the eating disorder due to their genes, although there is still much research to be done on the matter.

How is Anorexia Nervosa Treated?

The first step in treating anorexia nervosa involves helping the sufferer to admit that they have an eating disorder and assisting them in seeking help from a qualified therapist who specializes in treating anorexia nervosa. Effective treatment involves cognitive behavioral therapy that enables the patient to examine the negative and unrealistic thoughts that fuel the disorder as well as teaching them how to relax and how to manage their weight in a healthy way. A nutritionist can provide valuable information on how to incorporate healthy foods into their diet.

Treatment includes

Treatment is focused on the underlying causes of anorexia. Counseling is the main form of treatment for anorexia, with the purpose being to overcome irrational fears and understand and deal with the issues that triggered the compulsion to lose weight in the first place.

Treatment may also include

  • Disassociating food with self-worth or personal achievement
  • Identifying and understanding emotions
  • Finding productive ways to handle stress
  • Adopting a healthy meal plan

Risk factors

Risk factors for anorexia include a family history of eating disorders and developing unhealthy dieting and exercise routines for other purposes such as athletics. There is no single “cure” for anorexia, although it is a disorder that can often be managed with therapy and support from family members and friends.


Diagnosis can be difficult since most people tend to be secretive about their struggle and may make excuses for their weight loss. Diagnosis is based on physical appearance and a medical exam to detect biological issues such as low blood pressure, thinning hair, swollen joints, and easy bruising.

Anorexia Nervosa Prevention

The best way to prevent anorexia is to recognize early warning signs of disordered eating, such as severe restriction, sudden weight loss, and secrecy around or avoidance of food. The sooner the signs of an eating disorder are recognized, the sooner treatment can begin before it develops.

Parents might strive to reduce the risk of their children developing anorexia by:

  • Avoiding repetitive dieting
  • Being comfortable and accepting of their own bodies
  • Avoid restricting certain foods or labeling them as “bad”
  • Encouraging a healthy, balanced diet for both themselves and their children

Individuals who are striving to lose weight should always consult a doctor first. Not only will a doctor help to recommend a healthy and balanced eating and exercise plan, they will also help to ensure you don’t lose weight too quickly and might be able to help you spot early warning signs of eating disorders.

Last Reviewed:
September 12, 2016
Last Updated:
March 29, 2018