What is anorexia?

Anorexia, or anorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder. Anorexics have a problem keeping their body weight in a normal range or even above a minimal weight level considered to be healthy.

There are two types of anorexia:

  1. Restricting Type: The first type of anorexia, called restricting, is found in those anorexics who severely limit their caloric intake and/or who exercise to excess to cause weight loss.
  2. Binge-Eating/Purging Type: The second type of anorexia, called binge-eating/purging, is found in those anorexics who eat in binges and then purge the body of the ingested food either by self-induced vomiting, the ingestion of large quantities of laxatives, the overuse of diuretics and enemas to rid the body of food.

What characteristics are associated with it?

Anorexics do not accurately see, or perceive, their body’s shape and weight. They fear weight gain, and they work hard to stay thin.

In most cases anorexics actually lose weight. Weight loss usually occurs because of a severe reduction in caloric intake. Therefore weight loss is achieved by self-induced vomiting. Many anorexics also exercise to excess in an attempt to burn calories.

Some anorexics develop anorexia during their growing period by failing to gain weight properly.

Young women with this disorder sometimes fail to have their regular menstrual cycles.

Are there genetic factors associated with it?

The person with a family member who has had an eating disorder is at higher risk for developing anorexia. Also, mood disorders are seen more frequently in families where someone has anorexia.

Does it affect males, females, or both?

Anorexia is primarily a disorder of females.

At what age does it appear?

Anorexia is usually diagnosed when the young person is between the ages of 15 and 20 years. It is quite common for the first signs of anorexia to appear following a personally stressful event during adolescence. People in their 20’s and 30’s may have anorexia however, it is rare to see anorexia in an individual over 40 years of age.

How often is it seen in our society?

In the United States approximately 7 out of every 100 females have some form of eating disorder. Research shows that anorexia is found in about one percent (1%) of young women in their late adolescence or early adulthood.

How is it diagnosed?

Individuals with anorexia do not worry about their weight loss. Therefore, they generally do not seek professional help. Parents, other relatives, or friends are often responsible for getting the necessary help for the family member suffering from anorexia.

The diagnosis of anorexia is made when the anorexic either loses fifteen percent (15%) of their weight or when the growing child fails to acquire eighty-five percent (85%) of the minimal weight for their particular age and height. As mentioned above, young people with anorexia do not see themselves as overly thin, and they gain a great sense of achievement by keeping themselves trim. A history of excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, and the overuse of laxatives or diuretics helps the mental health professional make a diagnosis of anorexia.

How is it treated?

Individual and/or group therapy is important for those with anorexia. Group members can offer each other valuable support. Hence in actions such as: monitoring eating and weight gain and in dealing with such issues as self-esteem. However if the anorexic has lost too much weight and their health is in danger, hospitalization is necessary.

Medication is not effective in treating anorexia. However, medications can be quite helpful for those with anorexia who also have anxiety and/or depression.

A major focus of treatment is to help the anorexic begin to develop normal eating habits and to work toward the goal of achieving a healthy, normal weight. The person with anorexia must learn about the detrimental effects of starvation on the body. As a result it is important for the anorexic to learn about the harmful effects of frequent vomiting and/or excessive use of laxatives.

What happens to someone with anorexia?

Anorexia has a wide spectrum of outcomes. Hence it is not unusual for a young person to have only one brief episode. However, it is also not uncommon for a person to suffer from the illness during most of adolescence and into early adulthood. It is very important to recognize that up to five percent (5%) of those with anorexia actually die of their illness.

What can people do if they need help?

If you, a friend, or a family member would like more information and you have a therapist or a physician, please discuss your concerns with that person.

Developed by John L. Miller, MD
Reviewed 7/2000

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