What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa, often referred to as just "anorexia", is an eating disorder characterized by a distorted body image and intense fear of being overweight. To prevent weight gain or to continue losing weight, those with anorexia nervosa may feel compelled to engage in unhealthy eating behaviors including severely restricting the amount of food they eat and exercising obsessively, even when they are at a dangerous or unhealthily low weight.

20-30 million Americans live with eating disorders. Anorexia is most commonly seen in women and girls, but also occurs in men and boys. Anorexia is a dangerous condition, but it is treatable. Inpatient or hospital intervention may be required in serious cases. With help and treatment, you can learn to manage your symptoms and minimize its impact on your life.

Anorexia Symptoms

Hallmark anorexia symptoms include an extremely low body weight along with an avoidance of food and a fear of eating or gaining weight. Many noticeable anorexia symptoms are actually symptoms of starvation. Additional anorexia symptoms may include:

  • Fear of food and constant attempts to avoid eating 
  • Intense preoccupation with your weight and shape
  • Designing and keeping elaborate food plans and food diaries
  • An obsession with calorie counting and exercise
  • A relentless pursuit of thinness
  • Muscle wasting, weakness, or excessive tiredness
  • Thinning hair, brittle nails, dry and yellowish skin
  • A thin coat of hair growth over the entire body
  • Lack of menstruation in women and girls
  • Heart and other organ failures
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and activities
  • A tendency to dress in clothing that is too large or hides your body shape
  • The development of complex food or eating rituals
  • Fear of eating in public or with others
  • Secretiveness and lying about eating

It’s important to note that some individuals may experience many anorexia symptoms such as severe food restriction, preoccupation with weight, and obsession with tracking food and exercise but they may not be at a low body weight. This is often referred to as Atypical Anorexia and is still extremely dangerous. People with eating disorders in higher weight bodies often take longer to get connected to treatment because family and health professionals do not see the visible warning signs of an eating disorder. See the OSFED listing for more on atypical anorexia and other types of eating disorders.

Anorexia Causes and Risk Factors

There is not a single cause that triggers anorexia, but several risk factors can make you more likely to develop this condition. Genes, hormones, trauma, societal pressure, and other factors can all contribute to the development of anorexia. Some risk factors include:

  • A family history of eating disorders; genetics can play a major part in susceptibility
  • Negative body image or body dissatisfaction 
  • Certain personality traits such as perfectionism, rigidity or a tendency toward obeying rules
  • Societal, cultural, or family pressure to fit a certain “idealized” body type
  • Going on a diet; risk increases with more dieting behaviors
  • Experiencing issues with eating, food, and body image early in life or in childhood
  • Experiencing bullying or weight-based teasing at some point in your life
  • A history of trauma including sexual assault or abuse
  • Periods of illness or injury that trigger drastic weight loss or discomfort after eating
  • A pattern of disordered eating in your social circle
  • Having an obsessive-compulsive, anxiety or depressive disorder

Anorexia Treatment

Anorexia treatment is available near you. Anorexia can be treated and managed through a combination of nutrition protocols, individual and/or family therapy, support and sometimes medication to address co-occurring mood disorders. If anorexia has severely impacted your physical or cognitive functioning, or you and your doctor decide that it would be beneficial, inpatient treatment may be the best option to safely guide you through parts of your recovery. 

Medical Intervention: Anorexia can lead to serious, even fatal, physical complications. The stress that starvation puts on your body may mean that you require inpatient treatment in a medical setting to regain lost organ function and begin healing your body. Inpatient treatment may also be the best choice for you if you need additional support to begin your journey to recovery. Learn more about inpatient treatment at Sheppard Pratt.

Medication: Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs and other medications are sometimes used in conjunction with regular therapy to treat symptoms related to anorexia. Your doctor can help you find the right combination of medications for you. 

Therapy: Specific types of evidence-based therapy can help you overcome anorexia including individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, art therapy, and others. At The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, we offer a variety of therapies and we can help you design the right therapeutic program for you. 

Education: Learning more about your triggers and educating yourself, your family and your friends about disordered eating and anorexia is an important step in your recovery. Read more about mental health in our Knowledge Center.