What is Anorexia?
There are many misconceptions that come with the term “anorexia:” is the eating disorder more about weight, food, body image or fitting in?
The truth is that anorexia is a serious mental illness that affects our physical wellness; it is not a personal choice.
Anorexia is an incredibly complex illness; we go over some of the most basic facts about the illness here.
What is anorexia?
Anorexia Nervosa refers to the restriction of energy intake (calories) relative to what a person needs. This reduction in calories leads to a significantly low body weight in the context of the individual’s age, sex, developmental trajectory and health status.*
People with anorexia experience negative body image and an intense fear of gaining weight — even when others don't view them as underweight.
Some early signs of anorexia include the following:
- Body dissatisfaction
- Weight fluctuations
- Sudden changes in eating disorder behaviors (i.e. veganism/vegetarianism, gluten free, etc.)
- Sudden changes in exercise
- Persistent body image disturbance*
Some people may say that our society glamorizes anorexia: the media markets a pervasive diet culture and promotes careful eating through a skewed view of “health” — contributing to people having negative body image.
All people that practice careful eating or have a negative body image won't develop anorexia. But, some will.
What causes anorexia?
Anorexia is a bio-psycho-social illness. This means that biological, psychological and cultural aspects contribute to the development of the illness over time.
There are many contributing factors of Anorexia Nervosa:
- Diet culture
- Temperament (i.e. perfectionism, harm avoidance)
- Athletic culture
- Body shaming and/or the attempt to fit body shape ideals
Anorexia, like all eating disorders, is often secretive. In fact, anorexia is perpetuated by this secrecy; the secrecy performs some sort of function for the individual, even if it’s a maladaptive coping mechanism.
For example, restricting food intake may start off as a picky behavior, but then unintentionally become a means of control or predictability when life seems unmanageable. Or, not eating can create a numbing of emotions similar to the way drugs or alcohol can numb emotions and create an alternate state of being.
Anorexia diagnosis and treatment
Most people with anorexia do not go to a doctor to get help for (or a diagnosis of) this illness. And, often, the underlying diagnosis of anorexia gets missed by doctors who may see a symptom of anorexia as the primary issue.
For example, someone with anorexia may seek diagnosis and treatment for one or more of the eating disorder’s side effects:
- Gastrointestinal issues (i.e. early fullness, stomach discomfort, delayed emptying)
- Sleep issues
- Cardiorespiratory issues (shortness of breath, heart palpitations)
- Fatigue or fainting*
In turn, the individual may seek treatment and find temporary relief from the symptoms of anorexia without the underlying issue being diagnosed properly.
While the individual with anorexia may not acknowledge that they are ill or may be ambivalent about treatment, timely intervention and access to treatment is necessary to start the process of recovery through medical stabilization, nutritional rehabilitation, normalizing eating patterns and creating psychological and emotional stability.
Anorexia in families
When someone is diagnosed with anorexia, families, friends and medical providers can make a big difference! It’s so important to be informed and aware, as this illness can be fatal. Supporting a loved one and encouraging them to get treatment can help save their life and help them lead a healthy life of recovery.
As a community, it’s also important to avoid blame of parents or the sufferer. Families are the health-seekers for their loved ones and are vital for their long-term success in recovery. Individuals do not choose to have an eating disorder, but they can choose to recover with the help of a multi-disciplinary treatment team.
Get help for anorexia
All eating disorders, including Anorexia, are serious mental health illnesses with significant consequences, mental and physical health risks. It’s important, no matter the level of severity, to recognize symptoms and seek timely intervention based on developmentally appropriate and evidence-based treatment with a trusted medical team.
- Anorexia is a serious illness, not a choice.
- People with anorexia experience negative body image and an intense fear of gaining weight.
- Anorexia is a bio-psycho-social illness.
- Anorexia can be effectively treated by specialized treatment providers.
Recovery is possible for anyone and it’s never too late!
*Reference: Eating Disorders: A Guide to Medical Care (2016). Academy for Eating Disorders Report, 3, 1-22.