What Is Anorexia Nervosa? | Eating Disorders Victoria
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Anorexia Nervosa

Home ~ Eating disorders A-Z ~ Anorexia Nervosa

This page defines anorexia nervosa and provides information on warning signs, the physical effects of the illness, and treatment and recovery options.

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a psychological illness that has devastating physical consequences. It is characterised by low body weight and body image distortion with an obsessive fear of gaining weight, which manifests itself through depriving the body of food. It often coincides with increased levels of exercise.

There are two main sub-types of anorexia:

Restricting type — this is the most commonly known type of anorexia nervosa, whereby a person severely restricts their food intake. Restriction may take many forms (e.g. maintaining very low calorie count, restricting types of food eaten, eating only one meal a day) and may follow obsessive and rigid rules (e.g. only eating food of one colour).

Binge-eating or purging type — less recognised, this type of anorexia nervosa forms when a person restricts their intake as above, but also has regularly engaged in binge-eating or purging behaviour (e.g. self-induced vomiting, over-exercise, misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas).

Who gets anorexia nervosa?

There is no single cause of anorexia but there are risk factors that increase the likelihood of anorexia developing. These can be cultural, biological or psychological.

Anorexia nervosa usually develops during adolescence and generally has an earlier age of onset than bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder (the latter are often developed during late adolescence or early adulthood). However, like all eating disorders, anorexia can develop at any age or stage of life for both males and females. It is a myth that only adolescent girls experience anorexia.

You can read more about the causes of eating disorders here.


Lauren's story - my anger at anorexia

I get very angry and upset about my eating disorder: what it did to me, what it took from me. It put so much strain on my body and brain and I lost so much time and freedom, having to spend so long in hospital.

Read Lauren's story

Warning signs of anorexia nervosa

Some of the more common signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa are:

  • Preoccupation with body shape, weight and/or appearance
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Preoccupation with food or food related activities
  • Negative or distorted body image, perceiving self to be fat when at a healthy weight or underweight
  • Low self-esteem (e.g. guilt, self-criticism, worthlessness)
  • Rigid thinking (‘black and white’, ‘good and bad’ foods)
  • Feeling out of control
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Heightened anxiety around meal times
  • Heightened sensitivity to comments or criticism about body shape, weight, appearance, eating or exercise habits
  • Suicidal or self-harm thoughts or behaviours
  • Constant or repetitive dieting, restrictive or rigid eating patterns
  • Excessive or compulsive exercise
  • Changes in clothing style
  • Impaired school or work performance
  • Obsessive rituals around food
  • Changes in food preferences
  • Frequent avoidance of eating meals, making excuses not to eat
  • Social withdrawal or avoidance of social situations involving food
  • Repetitive or obsessive body-checking behaviours
  • Deceptive or secretive behaviour around food

Need to chat?

If you are concerned about yourself or someone you love, our team at the EDV Hub are here to help.

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Physical signs and effects of anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa can affect the mind and body in a multitude of ways:

Brain – preoccupation with food/calories, fear of gaining weight, headaches, fainting, dizziness, mood swings, anxiety, depression

Hair and skin – dry skin, brittle nails, thin hair, bruises easily, yellow complexion, growth of thin white hair all over body (called lanugo), intolerance to cold

Heart and blood – poor circulation, irregular or slow heartbeat, very low blood pressure, cardiac arrest, heart failure, low iron levels (anaemia)

Intestines – constipated, diarrhoea, bloating, abdominal pain

Hormones – irregular or absent periods, loss of libido, infertility

Kidneys – dehydration, kidney failure

Bones and muscles – loss of bone calcium (osteopenia), osteoporosis, muscle loss, weakness, fatigue

Read more

Atypical Anorexia Nervosa

A controversial term for some clinicians, ‘atypical’ anorexia nervosa refers to people who meet the standard diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, except for the weight component.

Individuals with atypical anorexia nervosa may still experience weight loss, however their weight will not fall into a low category. People with atypical anorexia nervosa will be in normal sized or larger bodies.

Many clinicians believe that the term ‘atypical’ is unhelpful, as atypical anorexia nervosa is actually found to be more prevalent than ‘typical’ anorexia nervosa. People with atypical anorexia nervosa are just as likely to display worrying symptoms, such as low heart rate and for females, loss of menses. Due to the stigma around weight gain and larger bodies, many people with atypical anorexia nervosa as not supported or encouraged to weight restore. This can lead to higher rates of relapse or partial recovery. Weight restoration, no matter the starting point, is the single biggest predictor of long term recovery.

If you think that you or someone you care about may be experiencing ‘atypical’ anorexia nervosa, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. The EDV Hub is a great place to start, or visit our ‘Getting Better’ section of the website.

Recovery and treatment

It is possible to recover from anorexia, even if you have been living with the illness for many years. The first step towards recovery is to ask for help. With the right team supporting you and a high level of commitment, you can recover from anorexia.

Anorexia is an incredibly serious mental illness and had the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Extreme food restriction can lead to starvation, malnutrition and a dangerously low body weight — all of which are synonymous with a host of health problems. However, complete recovery from anorexia is possible and early treatment leads to the greatest success.

Eating Disorders Victoria has put together a step-by-step guide take if you are concerned that you may be experiencing anorexia. It also covers how to talk to family or friends about what you’re going through. Remember that you have the best chance of success if you include people you trust on your journey.

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