What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening eating disorder that is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. The disorder is diagnosed when a person weighs at least 15% less than his or her normal body weight. Extreme weight loss in people with anorexia nervosa can lead to dangerous health problems and even death.

The term anorexia literally means "loss of appetite." However, this definition is misleading as people with anorexia nervosa are often hungry but refuse food anyway. People with anorexia nervosa have intense fears of becoming fat and sees themselves as fat even when they are very slender. These individuals may try to correct this perceived "flaw" by strictly limiting food intake and exercising excessively in order to lose weight.

Who gets anorexia nervosa?

People with anorexia nervosa tend to be very high achievers, performing very well in school, sports, work, and other activities. They might stop eating to feel that they have control over some part of their lives, or they might refuse to eat to "rebel" against their loved ones. Anorexia nervosa usually begins around the time of puberty, but it can develop at any time.

Eating disorders are more common in females than in males. The risk of developing an eating disorder is greater in actors, models, dancers, and athletes in sports where appearance and/or weight are important, such as wrestling, gymnastics, and figure skating.

What causes anorexia nervosa?

The exact cause of anorexia nervosa is not known, but research suggests that a combination of certain personality traits, emotions and thinking patterns, as well as biological and environmental factors might be responsible.

People with anorexia nervosa often use food and eating as a way to gain a sense of control when other areas of their lives are very stressful or when they feel overwhelmed. Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness also might contribute to the development of the disorder. In addition, people with eating disorders might have troubled relationships or have a history of being teased about their size or weight. Pressure from peers and a society that equates thinness and physical appearance with beauty also can have an impact on the development of anorexia nervosa.

Eating disorders also might have physical causes. Changes in hormones that control how the body and mind maintain mood, appetite, thinking, and memory might foster eating disorders. The fact that anorexia nervosa tends to run in families also suggests that a susceptibility to the disorder might be inherited.

What are the symptoms of anorexia nervosa?

  • Rapid weight loss over several weeks or months.
  • Continuing to diet even when thin or when weight is very low.
  • Having an unusual interest in food, calories, nutrition or cooking.
  • Intense fear of gaining weight.
  • Strange eating habits or routines, such as eating in secret.
  • Feeling fat, even if underweight.
  • Inability to realistically assess one’s own body weight.
  • Striving for perfection and being very self-critical.
  • Undue influence of body weight or shape on self-esteem.
  • Depression, anxiety, or irritability.
  • Infrequent or irregular menstrual periods in females.
  • Laxative, diuretic, or diet pill use.
  • Frequent illness.
  • Wearing loose clothing to hide weight loss.
  • Compulsive exercising.
  • Feeling worthless or hopeless.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Physical symptoms that develop over time, including: low tolerance of cold weather, brittle hair and nails, dry or yellowing skin, anemia, constipation, swollen joints and a new growth of thin hair over the body.

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