Signs and Symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia

Anorexia (or “anorexia nervosa”) is an eating disorder in which the individual refuses to maintain a proper, healthy body weight.   These individuals (predominantly young women) have an intense fear of gaining weight.  It’s a multifaceted eating disorder distinguished by starvation, excessive weight loss, and an unrealistic body image. At any one time, one to five percent of the population is dealing with anorexia and 90 to 95 percent of these people are women between the ages of 13 and 30. Men of any age can develop anorexia as well, though the rate of frequency is a bit lower.

The number of individuals living with anorexia nervosa increases with each passing year. Generally, those who are struggling with anorexia do not recognize they have a problem because the disease manipulates their perception of themselves and their bodies. When this happens, making rational decisions about their own health becomes extremely difficult. For most people in need of anorexia treatment, the concerns and/or intervention from family or friends will be the catalyst that gets them the professional help they need.

Possible Causes of Anorexia

Loved ones of those with anorexia will want to know the exact cause of the eating disorder so it can be quickly remedied. Unfortunately, there is no one simple answer to the causes of anorexia – many factors are generally at play in the development of the disease. Usually, anorexia develops from a variety of life factors in combination with a person who already diets frequently or follows strict diet regimens.

Potential Causes:+

Some of the possible combinations of factors that may contribute to the progression of anorexia include:

  • Family Pressures: A family with unrealistic expectations for their child can lead to perfectionistic tendencies that affect a person’s global perceptions, including their own body image. Also, parents who obsess over their own weight or frequently diet can negatively influence their children’s beliefs about their own bodies.
  • Physiological Factors: Reduced serotonin levels, hormonal imbalances and reduced blood flow to certain regions of the brain all seem to have influences on patients with anorexia. Serotonin is responsible for communicating the need for food and sleep to the brain, and low levels lead to depression as well.
  • Low Self-Esteem: Practically everyone fighting an eating disorder has a poor self-image. Problems with self-esteem may develop in someone who has experienced abuse or has a history of anger, anxiety or loneliness, an inability to effectively or openly communicate their feelings, or someone who feels incapable of living up to extremely high expectations.
  • Unrealistic Cultural Images: There has been much discussion in society in recent years over the unattainable body images portrayed in the media that set people up for seeing their own bodies as inadequate.
  • Major Life Crises: Stressful life events such as the death of a loved one, loss of a relationship, job loss, money worries, a major move or serious mental illness are all examples of difficult experiences that may trigger anorexia.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

Anoriexia signs and symptomsAnorexia nervosa is a deadly disease.   Once the condition reaches a certain point, many of the problems associated with it are, quite simply, irreversible.  There are two different types of anorexia:  restricting and purging.  With restricting anorexia the individual will limit (or “restrict”) the number of calories they take in each day.  This is usually accomplished through extreme dieting, excessive exercise or fasting.   With purging anorexia, the individual will eat large meals and then achieve weight loss by self-induced vomiting or the use of diuretics or laxatives. Understanding the condition means knowing the signs and symptoms of anorexia. The anorexic individual is unlikely to admit they have a problem.

Friends and family must therefore be vigilant in watching out for the following signs and symptoms of the condition:

  • Intense dieting, even though the individual is thin:  These individuals will only consume low-calorie foods or those lacking in fats and carbohydrates.
  • A constant obsession with caloric intake: This individual will always read the labels on foods, measure and weigh their portions and keep a food journal of everything they eat.
  • Lying about eating habits:   Anorexics are known to make excuses in order to get out of eating meals (saying that they already ate, are not hungry, etc.).  They may even throw away food when nobody is watching them.
  • Food rituals:   An individual with anorexia may engage in strange rituals concerning food.   They may flat out refuse to eat in public or in front of other people.  They may also chew their food and then spit it out before swallowing it.
  • Always thinking about food:  Anorexics are obsessed with everything related to food – including cookbooks, diets, planning meals, etc.

If you have concerns that you or someone you know may have anorexia, finding a mental health professional who can do an assessment would be the first step in getting help. Psychologists use a manual known as the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – 5th edition) to help guide them in the diagnosis of their patients for disorders such as anorexia. The following criteria is how the DSM-V defines the behaviors that are connected to anorexia:

  1.  A refusal or inability to maintain a body weight that is close to what is minimally normal given the height and age of the patient.
  2. A fear of gaining weight, even though underweight.
  3. A skewed view of body shape, weight and image, including denial that the current weight due to anorexia is at a dangerous low.
  4. Amenorrhea, or lack of a menstrual period, for at least three cycles in a row in girls and women of age.

Does a Loved One Need Help

Anorexia is a serious disorder that can lead to permanent health problems and/or deadly consequences. In fact, approximately 20 percent of individuals with anorexia who do not receive help will end up dying. If you suspect someone you care about may be developing disordered eating habits or is already in the midst of full-blown anorexia, here is a list of behaviors to look for:

  • Therapeutic Treatment ModelsFeels the need to diet despite being thin
  • Highly critical of their own appearance
  • Strong fear of gaining weight
  • Exercises excessively
  • Dramatic weight loss that puts them at 85 percent or less than normal weight for their stature
  • Always has a reason NOT to eat such as sick, just ate, not hungry or stressed out
  • Stops having monthly periods
  • Does not eat in front of others
  • Obsessively counts calories and reads food labels
  • Cuts food into very small pieces and/or moves food around their plate
  • Weighs themselves frequently
  • Dry skin and brittle hair and nails
  • Experiences dizzy spells
  • Moody or irritable
  • Fine growth of hair over their whole body
  • Wears clothes that are too big in order to disguise their weight loss
  • Always goes to the bathroom after meals (to purge)
  • Evidence of use of laxatives, diet pills or diuretics

Find Treatment for Anorexia

Anorexia is a perplexing disease to those watching from the outside; most believe that the issue is about weight. Dealing only with an individual’s weight cannot treat anorexia because the drive to starve themselves comes from issues that are more deeply rooted. Until the real problem is dealt with, no amount of weight loss will ever satisfy an anorexic. If you believe that someone in your life is anorexic, contact a mental health treatment professional today.   Nothing short of their life may depend on it.

Additional Resources

Tween and Teen Nutrition
Medline Plus Health Information
Teen Health and the Media