Anorexia is typically characterized by low body weight, a distorted body image and an obsessive fear of gaining weight.

Anorexia is a psychological disorder that can affect a person’s life at home, work or school. People with this disorder often believe that they appear much heavier than they are. Additionally, women and men who experience anorexia exhibit abnormal eating patterns and a fascination with appearing thin.

What Is Anorexia?

Anorexia is an eating disorder. The condition is associated with symptoms that range from dry skin to loss of muscle mass, heart failure and brain damage. Sometimes referred to as anorexia nervosa in the medical community, anorexia can produce symptoms that are potentially life-threatening.

Anorexia has devastating physical consequences. The disorder is typically characterized by low body weight, a distorted body image and an obsessive fear of gaining weight. People with anorexia often deprive the body of food and nutrients while also engaging in excessive amounts of exercise.

Types of Anorexia

There are two common subtypes of anorexia: binge-purge type and restrictive type. Though two classifications of this eating disorder exist, both types exhibit similar symptoms, such as an irrational fear of weight gain and abnormal eating patterns.

Binge and Purge Anorexia

An individual who struggles with binge eating disorder will often purge their meal after consumption. Purging can occur through exercising excessively, restricting water due to bloating, vomiting, enemas or misusing laxatives. The binge-and-purge cycle may alleviate their fear of gaining weight and reduce guilt caused by ingesting foods that they have tried to avoid eating.

Placing restrictions on eating certain foods is common for the binge-purge type anorexia. Binging and purging is often associated with a loss of self-control, and many people with the disorder purge to rid their body of a substance that they feel guilty for eating.

An episode of binge eating often involves overeating, or consuming large amounts of food in a short period of time. While indulging, the individual may sense a lack of control for what or how much they are eating. A binge-eating episode may also include consuming more rapidly than normal, eating until feeling unpleasantly full or ingesting large amounts of food when hungry.

Anorexia can also cause an individual to prefer to eat alone because they may be embarrassed about how much they are eating. They may also grapple with feelings of guilt or depression resulting from their abnormal eating patterns.

Restrictive Anorexia

Restrictive anorexia is a form of self-starvation. People who struggle with restrictive anorexia are often perceived as extremely self-disciplined. Individuals with this disorder often place unrealistic restrictions on the amount of food that they consume. They might restrict their calorie intake and avoid fatty or sugary foods. These behaviors may be accompanied by excessive exercise.

Habits associated with restrictive anorexia include:

  • Obsessively counting calories
  • Skipping meals
  • Restricting specific food groups, like carbohydrates
  • Obsessively following rules

Because they consume far fewer calories than are needed to maintain a healthy weight, people with restrictive anorexia have a high likelihood of experiencing malnutrition.

Symptoms of Anorexia

Individuals who are anorexic may experience physical and emotional symptoms. Warning signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa vary across eating disorders, so symptoms may differ from person to person. People with anorexia generally may not simultaneously experience every symptom associated with the condition.

Emotional and behavioral warning signs of anorexia may include:

  • Losing weight
  • Dressing in layers to hide weight loss or to stay warm
  • Refusing to eat certain foods
  • Restricting entire categories of foods
  • Making frequent comments about feeling overweight
  • Constipation
  • Experiencing abdominal pain, exhaustion or excessive energy
  • Denying hunger

People with anorexia are often preoccupied with weight, food, calories and dieting. They may maintain an excessive exercise regimen regardless of their illness or injury. They also often speak of the need to burn off calories.

Physical Signs of Anorexia

Imbalances in some hormones — such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin — in anorexic individuals create mood-fluctuating characteristics. Because these hormones regulate mood, appetite, motivation and behavior, abnormal levels could lead to mood swings, irregular appetite, impulsive behavior, anxiety or depression.

Anorexia can take a toll on an individual’s body and cause serious illnesses and injuries. Physical signs of anorexia caused by malnutrition may include complaints of stomach pain, menstrual irregularities in females, dizziness, anemia, low potassium, slow thyroid, difficulty concentrating, fainting, sleep problems, dry skin, poor immune system, muscle weakness, thinning hair and slow wound healing.

Additionally, there are physical side effects to purging food. Vomit contains a high amount of acid from the stomach. Vomiting frequently can lead to cuts and calluses across the top of finger joints because of placing fingers in the throat to induce vomit. Stomach acid can also lead to dental problems, like enamel erosion, cavities, tooth discoloration, swelling around salivary glands and tooth sensitivity.

Causes of Anorexia

No single cause exists for anorexia, and many factors can lead to the development of the disorder. Genetics, psychological health, traumatic relationships and societal expectations can contribute to the development of this disease. A person’s genetics can influence their susceptibility to eating disorders. The odds of developing anorexia increase if the person has a close relative who has experienced an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are more prevalent in individuals with other emotional and psychological difficulties, such as low self-esteem, depression and anxiety. Traumatic experiences can lead to psychological difficulties. People who have had traumatic relationships, a history of sexual abuse or high expectations placed on them by family can develop an eating disorder like anorexia.

Society may also play a role in the development of anorexia. In western cultures, thinness is often promoted. Images in the media of thin models and peer pressure to be thinner can contribute to negative body image among people, especially adolescent females.

How Is Anorexia Diagnosed?

According to the criteria found in the fifth edition of the DSM, a person with anorexia nervosa must display persistent restriction from food, intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, and a disturbance in the way one’s body weight is experienced.

Having only one of the characteristics listed would not be enough to be diagnosed with anorexia. Guidelines for the diagnosis of anorexia consider weight loss to be relevant if a person’s current body weight is 15 percent below the expected weight of an individual that age and height — or a body mass index (BMI) of around 17.2.

A persistent restriction of food intake can lead to low body weight. There is a healthy expected weight or BMI for age, gender and height. When food is restricted, the individual’s BMI might drop, which can force the body to become malnourished.

An intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight can cause people to excessively exercise or starve themselves. Anorexia also distorts a person’s body image. For example, some individuals experiencing anorexia may think that they are overweight.

When being tested for a diagnosis of anorexia, the physician may ask questions like:

  • Have you recently noticed a drastic decrease in your weight?
  • Do you struggle with maintaining a healthy self-esteem?
  • Are you overly worried about gaining weight?
  • Do you find yourself making excuses not to eat?
  • Do you exercise excessively?
  • Do you obsess over dieting?
  • Have you been distancing yourself from friends and family?
  • Are you often depressed?

The good news is that anorexia is treatable with the right amount of support.

Who Is at Risk for Anorexia?

Individuals of various backgrounds could be at risk of developing an eating disorder, but there are specific high-risk groups who are more susceptible to the disorder. The peak period for onset of eating disorders is between ages 12 and 25. Adolescents go through many changes during puberty, some involving depressive moods, and they might not be fully equipped to cope with these changes.

The pressure to look like individuals seen in media images can lead to low self-esteem at these ages. Women are more apt to develop anorexia, particularly during key transition periods, such as going from high school to college.

Anorexia is also common among athletes who engage in competitive fitness sports, dance, gymnastics or cheerleading, where the body shape may be perceived by the individual as something that could affect performance. Nonathletes who are seeking help for weight loss and dieting or who have a family history of an eating disorder are also at a high risk of experiencing eating disorders. Individuals who meet the DSM characteristics for anorexia may benefit from a screening for an eating disorder.

Anorexia Statistics

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders suggests that there is a 50 to 80 percent chance that a person’s genetics is the cause of their anorexia. About half of all anorexia patients have an anxiety disorder, like obsessive-compulsive disorder or social phobia. However, mood disorders are more commonly associated with the binge-and-purge subtype of anorexia rather than the restrictive subtype.

Studies by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders that explored the frequency of purging in eating disorder patients found that up to 86 percent used self-induced vomiting and up to 56 percent abused laxatives. Over 40 percent of patients vomited and used laxatives to meet an unrealistic appearance.

The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than that of any other cause of death for females ages 15 to 24. Up to 20 percent of individuals with serious eating disorders who fail to seek treatment die. Those who seek treatment can lower their chance of mortality to 2 to 3 percent. However, some deaths from anorexia are not based on malnutrition. About 20 percent of anorexia-related deaths are caused by suicide.

When combined with drug or alcohol abuse, anorexia may require professional treatment. If you or a loved one struggles with these co-occurring conditions, you deserve compassionate, dual-diagnosis treatment to recover fully. Because choosing a rehab center can be a difficult decision, The Recovery Village representatives are here to help. To learn more about your options for co-occurring disorder treatment, call The Recovery Village today at  877.427.7401. Caring representatives are available to take your call, answer your questions and guide you toward a program that meets your needs. The telephone call is toll-free and confidential, and there is no pressure to commit to a program.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.