Eating Disorders: Anorexia Nervosa

by Nelly Uhlenkott on April 11, 2011

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This is part 2 of a 4 part series about eating disorders.

What is anorexia?

People with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of becoming obese. They’re constantly driven by the desire to lose weight.

The key feature of anorexia is eating as little as possible. Compulsive exercise often goes along with anorexia to cause even more weight loss. People with anorexia are never satisfied with their weight, and panic if they do not lose weight from one day to the next.

There are two types of anorexia nervosa: the restricting type, where people limit their food to very small amounts; and the binge-eating-purging type, where people compulsively binge on small amounts of food, and then vomit or use laxatives to get rid of it. The binge-eating-purging type might sound like bulimia, but it’s not the same thing; the binge-eating-purging type of anorexia involves binging on only tiny quantities of food.

Anorexia is typified by a very strictly controlled diet, and often the self-control and regimented diets are a source of pride for people with the disorder. Some people suffering from anorexia become obsessed with food and cooking, and may even begin cooking for other people while refusing to eat the food themselves as an extra show of self-control.

What happens when you have anorexia?

People with both types of anorexia lose an extreme amount of weight. They start to look like the unhealthy, extremely thin image that’s usually associated with eating disorders. People with anorexia often have a skewed image of their bodies, known as “body dysmorphia”, and either continue to see themselves as overweight or do not recognise how thin they’ve become.

Anorexia causes a number of serious physical problems. When the body doesn’t get enough food, it literally starts eating itself, causing damage to organs including the brain and the heart. People with anorexia get dry skin, brittle hair and nails, and feel cold all the time. Their hair on their head may fall out, and they might start growing a thin layer of “peach fuzz” on their arms, legs and cheeks. People with anorexia also have dangerously low blood pressure and heart rate. Their bones become thin and brittle through lack of nutrients, and they often develop osteopenia or osteoporosis. Women with anorexia usually stop getting their periods.

People with anorexia are literally starving to death. Anorexia causes serious damage to the body, which may be permanent if the anorexia is long-term. Untreated anorexia is usually fatal.

How is anorexia diagnosed?

Are these true for you or someone you care about?

  1. You refuse to maintain at least the minimum normal body weight for your age and height (your body weight is less than 85% of what’s expected).
  2. You have an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though you’re underweight.
  3. Your experience of your body weight or shape is skewed. Your body weight or shape has a major influence on your self-esteem and self-evaluation, or you deny the seriousness of your current low body weight.
  4. For females after the age of puberty, your period disappears (know as “amenorrhea”) for at least three consecutive menstrual cycles. (Periods may continue to be present if given a hormone such as oestrogen; birth control pills, for instance, may mean that periods remain).

Frighteningly, anorexia nervosa is the most deadly of any psychological disorder, including depression. Some of these deaths are due to the physical effects of starvation, while up to half the deaths are suicides. People with anorexia rarely seek out treatment on their own and are likely to need encouragement or an intervention from someone who recognises the signs of their disorder.

Getting proper treatment is essential to recovering from anorexia. That usually includes at least two components: medical treatment for the physical problems that have developed as a result of anorexia, and counselling to work through the issues that may have led to the eating disorder. Recovery is difficult, and counselling can help with the emotional and psychological difficulties involved. Eating disorders are traumatic to those who have had them, and counselling is an essential support for emotional recovery from the experience.

If you would like to learn more about anorexia nervosa I suggest reading Demystifying Anorexia Nervosa: An Optimistic Guide to Understanding and Healing by Dr Alexander Lucas. This informative book is useful for people suffering from anorexia and for friends and family members looking for insight into what it’s like to live with anorexia.

If  you think you have an eating disorder and live in Melbourne the team at Paul the Counsellor can be of assistance. You will be in control of your care and we will be able to offer you the support you need. We can also work with you individually or as part of a team of carers such as nutritionists and medical practitioners.

0458 090 687
253 Lonsdale St, Melbourne VIC 3000

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Luna August 8, 2011 at 12:42 PM

This is a great overview and a hugely refreshing change from all the societal pro-anorexia propaganda floating about


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