Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves an inability to stay at the minimum body weight considered healthy for the person’s age and height. Persons with this disorder may have an intense fear of weight gain, even when they are underweight. They may use extreme dieting, excessive exercise, or other methods to lose weight.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
The exact causes of anorexia nervosa are unknown. Many factors probably are involved. Genetics and hormones may play a role. Social attitudes that promote unrealistically thin body types may also contribute.
Risk factors include:
- Being a perfectionist
- Feeling increasing concern about, or attention to, weight and shape
- Having eating and digestive problems during early childhood
- Having a mother or father with anorexia or addictions
- Having parents who are concerned about weight and weight loss
- Having a negative self-image and a high level of negative feelings in general
- Undergoing a stressful life change, such as a new job or move, or events such as rape or abuse
Anorexia usually begins in adolescence or young adulthood. It is more common in females, but may also be seen in males. The disorder is seen mainly in Caucasian women who are high academic achievers and who have a goal-oriented family or personality.
To be diagnosed with anorexia, a person must:
- Have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even when they are underweight
- Refuse to keep weight at what is considered normal or acceptable for her age and height (15% or more below the expected weight)
- Have a body image that is very distorted, be very focused on body weight or shape, and refuse to admit or acknowledge the seriousness of weight loss
- Have not had their period for three or more cycles (in women)
People with anorexia may severely limit the amount of food they eat, or eat and then make themselves throw up. Other behaviors include:
- Cutting food into small pieces or moving them around the plate rather than eating
- Exercising all the time, even when the weather is bad, they are hurt, or their schedule is busy
- Going to the bathroom right after meals
- Refusing to eat around others
- Using pills to make themselves urinate (water pills or diuretics), have a bowel movement (enemas and laxatives) or to decrease their appetite (diet pills)
Other symptoms of anorexia may include: