What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder. People with anorexia nervosa practice self-starvation and have an immense fear of gaining weight. People with this disorder are typically severely underweight and have an altered perception of their appearance. In addition, they place a lot of importance on being in control of their body shape and weight. 
People with anorexia nervosa tend to be of extremely low body weight because they will go to great lengths to restrict their eating to prevent gaining weight. They may also exercise in excessive amounts, abuse laxatives, take diet pills, or make themselves vomit after eating (binging and purging). However, anorexia nervosa differs from bulimia nervosa in that people with anorexia have an abnormally low body weight while people with bulimia nervosa tend to be of normal body weight or above. People with anorexia are consumed with the fear of gaining weight. Their altered perceptions of themselves will cause them to continue to try and lose weight even if they are severely underweight.
Sufferers of anorexia nervosa may also have very unusual eating habits. They use their eating as a way to have control over their lives and may associate their body image with their self-worth. 
This disorder can be life-threatening because the large amount of weight loss can result in many other health problems. Prompt intervention and treatment is very important in these individuals. 
Risk factors
  • Being a female: Anorexia nervosa is more common in girls/women
  • Family history: Having a first degree relative with this disorder puts one at greater risk. 
  • Genetics: An alteration in certain genes may put someone more at risk for developing anorexia. 
  • Weight changes: A drop or gain in weight may cause someone to start extreme dieting
  • Media and society: The portrayal of skinny actors/actresses and models can cause one to put unrealistic expectations on themselves and make them feel like they have to be thin. 
  • Transitions and major life events: Emotional stress can put one at increased risk for developing anorexia nervosa. 
  • Being an athlete, model, dancer, actor/actress, etc.: Certain professions and activities may put pressure on people to lose weight.  
  • Having other mental health problems 
  • Family influences
  • Developmental issues
In order to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa one must weigh 15% less than what their normal body weight should be. Your doctor will probably do a complete medical history and physical exam to rule out any other possible causes of weight loss. 
Some tests and examinations that may be done to diagnose anorexia nervosa include:
  • Psychological evaluation: The doctor will likely ask you about your thoughts, feelings, stress level, etc. in order to look for emotional characteristics of anorexia nervosa. 
  • Physical exam: Checking height and weight is very important when diagnosing this disorder. A physical exam will also involve checking your vital signs and looking for other physical characteristics of this disorder as well as for any complications.  
  • Lab tests: A blood test and a urinalysis may be done. Blood tests can check your electrolyte and protein levels as well as the function of your liver, kidney, and thyroid. 
  • Imaging studies such as X-rays may be done to detect for any complications of anorexia nervosa such as bone fractures and heart problems. 
  • Electrocardiogram: This test can help to see how well your heart is functioning. Heart problems are a complication of anorexia nervosa. 
The diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa is outlined in The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that is published by the American Psychiatric Association. These criteria include:
  • Problems with body image/altered body image: Even if they are severely underweight, people with anorexia nervosa will still have an altered perception of how they look and may view themselves as fat. They also may associate appearance with self-worth. 
  • Restricting food intake: People with anorexia nervosa will severely limit the amount of food they allow themselves to eat - resulting in a dramatically low body weight. 
  • Fear of gaining weight: People with anorexia nervosa have a debilitating fear of gaining weight - resulting in them taking extreme measures to prevent gaining weight. 
Treatment for anorexia nervosa tends to involve a medical team of many different specialists. Goals of treatment include restoring patients to a healthy weight, preventing/reversing any complications, changing their current eating behaviors, fixing their thought patterns, and restoring their emotional well-being/self-esteem.
Treatment for anorexia nervosa may include:
  • Hospitalization
  • Psychotherapy
  • Medication
  • Group/family therapy
  • Nutrition counseling
  • Medical care for health complications 
  • Anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic disease among young people. 
  • People with anorexia tend to be very high achievers.
  • One can develop anorexia at any time but it most commonly develops around puberty.
  • The number of women ages 15-19 who develop anorexia nervosa has increased every 10 years since 1930
  • 0.9% of American women suffer from anorexia in their lifetime.
  • Approximately 1/2 of anorexia sufferers also have an anxiety disorder.
  • 33-50% of people suffering from anorexia also have a mood disorder such as depression. 
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. 
about anorexia nervosa

  • "Anorexia nervosa" Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 28 Jan. 2016. Web. 14 Aug. 2017.
  • "Anorexia Nervosa." | Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library. Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library, n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2017.
  • “Anorexia: Overview and Statistics.” National Eating Disorders Association, n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2017.
  • “Eating Disorder Types and Symptoms.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2017.
  • “Anorexia Nervosa.” Cleveland Clinic, 29 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Aug. 2017.
  • “Eating Disorder Statistics.” National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2017.



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