Health A to Z

Anorexia Nervosa

Why it's so common, the signs to watch for, and suggestions on how to treat it.

They say thin is always in but it can go too far and become unhealthy. The eating disorder Anorexia nervosa is characterized by extreme thinness and an inability to stay at the minimum body weight considered healthy for your age and height. People who are anorexic are obsessed with controlling their eating and have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may use extreme dieting, excessive exercise or other methods to lose weight. Anorexia most commonly begins in adolescence or young adulthood and is more common in females. Medical conditions, such as heart problems, can develop as a result of anorexia; it’s estimated that 10 percent of people with anorexia will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.

Anorexia causes While the causes of anorexia nervosa are unknown, genetics, hormones and social attitudes promoting unrealistically thin bodies may all contribute to the development of the condition. Risk factors include an increasing concern about weight, as well as having a parent or family member with anorexia or addictions, or who is obsessive about weight and weight loss. A negative self-image and undergoing stressful life changes are also risk factors.

Anorexia symptoms An intense fear of gaining weight, refusing to maintain a healthy weight, a distorted body image and a minimum of three skipped periods are all symptoms of anorexia. Other symptoms include refusing to eat, vomiting after meals and using laxatives and diet pills. Depression, blotchy skin and cold sensitivity are also associated with anorexia.

Anorexia diagnosis/tests If a doctor suspects a woman has anorexia, she’ll conduct a full physical examination. Laboratory tests may be ordered, such as a complete blood count (CBC) and tests to check electrolytes and thyroid, kidney and liver function. Sometimes X-rays are needed to check for heart problems or broken bones and bone density tests may be ordered to check bone health. A psychological evaluation using questionnaires will help determine if the person meets the criteria for an anorexia diagnosis.

Anorexia treatment The greatest challenge in treating a person suffering from anorexia is having them recognize that they have an illness. The majority of anorexics deny they have an eating disorder.

Hospital care is typically a necessity in cases of anorexia. Treatment can involve an inpatient or outpatient program designed to restore a normal body weight and eating habits.

Therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, group therapy and family therapy, may be effective in changing an anorexic’s thinking or behaviour and encouraging healthier eating habits. Support groups may also be part of the treatment plan.

Medications, such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers that treat anxiety and depression, may help some anorexics.

Anorexia prevention There is no known way to prevent anorexia. But parents, teachers and other adults can help by modeling and encouraging healthy eating habits and a healthy body image and by having positive attitudes toward a range of body shapes. Talking to young women about the unattainable images of models in the media may also be a helpful strategy.

Outside resources

National Eating Disorder Information Centre
Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association