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Anorexia Nervosa


Topic Overview

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa (say "an-uh-RECK-see-uh nur-VOH-suh") is a type of eating disorder. People who have anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight. They severely limit the amount of food they eat and can become dangerously thin.

Anorexia affects both the body and the mind. It may start as dieting, but it gets out of control. You think about food, dieting, and weight all the time. You have a distorted body image. Other people say you are too thin, but when you look in the mirror, you see a fat person.

Anorexia usually starts in the teen years. It's much more common in females than males. Early treatment can be very effective. But if not treated early, anorexia can become a lifelong problem. Untreated anorexia can lead to starvation and serious health problems, such as bone thinning (osteoporosis), kidney damage, and heart problems. Some people die from these problems.

If you or someone you know has anorexia, get help right away. The longer this problem goes on, the harder it is to overcome. With treatment, a person with anorexia can feel better and stay at a healthy weight.

What causes anorexia?

Eating disorders are complex, and experts don't really know what causes them. But they may be due to a mix of family history, social factors, and personality traits. You may be more likely to have anorexia if:

  • Other people in your family have an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa.
  • You have a job or do a sport that stresses body size, such as ballet, modeling, or gymnastics.
  • You are the type of person who tries to be perfect all the time, never feels good enough, or worries a lot.
  • You are dealing with stressful life events, such as divorce, moving to a new town or school, or losing a loved one.

What are the symptoms?

People who have anorexia often strongly deny that they have a problem. They don't see or believe that they do. It's usually up to their loved ones to get help for them. If you are worried about someone, you can look for certain signs.

People who have anorexia:

  • Weigh much less than is healthy or normal.
  • Are very afraid of gaining weight.
  • Refuse to stay at a normal weight.
  • Think they are overweight even when they are very thin.

Their lives become focused on controlling their weight. They may:

  • Obsess about food, weight, and dieting.
  • Strictly limit how much they eat.
  • Exercise a lot, even when they are sick.
  • Vomit or use laxatives or water pills (diuretics) to avoid weight gain.

How is anorexia diagnosed?

If your doctor thinks that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will compare your weight with the expected weight for someone of your height and age. He or she will also check your heart, lungs, blood pressure, skin, and hair to look for problems caused by not eating enough. You may also have blood tests or X-rays.

Your doctor may ask questions about how you feel. It is common for a treatable mental health problem such as depression or anxiety to play a part in an eating disorder.

How is it treated?

All people who have anorexia need treatment. Even if you, your child, or someone else you care about has only a couple of the signs of an eating disorder, get help now. Early treatment gives the best chance of overcoming anorexia.

Treatment can help you get back to and stay at a healthy weight. It can also help you learn good eating habits and learn to feel better about yourself. Because anorexia is both a physical and emotional problem, you may work with a doctor, a dietitian, and a counselor.

If your weight has dropped too low, you will need to be treated in a hospital.

Anorexia can take a long time to overcome, and it is common to fall back into unhealthy habits. If you are having problems, don't try to handle them on your own. Get help now.

What should you do if you think someone has anorexia?

It can be very scary to realize that someone you care about has an eating disorder. But you can help.

If you think your child has anorexia:

  • Talk to her. Tell her why you are worried. Let her know you care.
  • Make an appointment for you and your child to meet with a doctor or a counselor.

If you're worried about someone you know:

  • Tell someone who can make a difference, like a parent, teacher, counselor, or doctor. A person with anorexia may insist that she doesn't need help, but she does. The sooner she gets treatment, the sooner she will be healthy again.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about anorexia:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with anorexia:

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