Understanding Anorexia Nervosa

An emotional disorder characterized by an obsessive desire to lose weight.

Understanding Anorexia Nervosa
Lily Collins in "To the Bone"

Anorexia is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining a healthy weight, and oftentimes, a distorted body image, and it actually isn’t about food at all. In reality, this disorder is an unhealthy and possibly life-threatening way to cope with emotional issues surrounding a negative body image and poor self worth. At any given moment, 0.4% of young women and 0.1% of young men will suffer from anorexia nervosa.

According to multiple studies, all of which can be found on the National Eating Disorders Association website, individuals between the ages of 15 and 24 with anorexia nervosa are at 10 times more risk of dying than others at that age. This is due to the complications that go along with the disorder, including dramatic weight loss leading to self-starvation. The cycle of self-starvation can cause the body to miss out on essential nutrients needed for proper function, slowing all of its processes to conserve energy. Some other physical symptoms include: gastrointestinal complications, anemia, slow heart rate, low potassium, dizziness and fainting, cold intolerance, menstrual irregularities in females, dental issues from inducing vomiting, dry and brittle hair, skin, and nails, muscle weakness, poor wound healing, bruising easily, and weakened immune system. All of these malfunctions can cause electrolyte imbalances, which can kill without warning, as well as cardiac arrest -- both are commonly present with anorexia, which is the second leading cause of death related to mental health illnesses, behind drug and substance abuse.

On top of the physical symptoms, there are also several emotional and behavioral signs of anorexia. Individuals with this disorder often suffer from a distorted body image that causes them to see unrealistic images of themselves, like seeing an overweight body despite the fact that this person is severely underweight. Other signs one may notice include: dressing in layers to stay warm and hide weight loss, making frequent comments about feeling “fat,” complaining of constipation or abdominal pain, appearing lethargic or having bursts of excessive energy, developing food rituals, maintaining rigid exercise regimens regardless of weather, fatigue, illness or injury, and having a strong need for control. Someone struggling with anorexia may often cook meals for others, but won’t eat or denies feeling hungry. When they do eat, they become preoccupied with calories, fat grams, or even cutting out entire food groups like carbohydrates. Because of these habits, people often mistake the disorder for being completely food related when it actually goes much deeper than that.

When it comes to diagnosis, there are specific parameters that must be met. These parameters are referred to as the DSM-5 criteria, and all must be met in order to receive a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. The DSM-5 criteria includes: restriction of energy intake that’s required for the body, leading to significantly low weight; an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming “fat,” even when underweight; disturbance in the way one views their body or denial of the seriousness of the disorder. Although the DSM-5 helps diagnose anorexia nervosa, individuals may still have very serious eating disorders even if all the criteria is not met.

It is important to remember that anyone can have an eating disorder. Age, gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity do not play a part in who may develop one. It’s also important to be aware of those around you. You cannot tell if someone is suffering from an eating disorder just by looking at them, especially because they won’t always be emaciated or underweight. Larger-bodied individuals are just as likely to develop an eating disorder but are less likely to be diagnosed due to the cultural stigma against obesity. This is also the case with males, who represent 25% of anorexia nervosa cases, but are often diagnosed later in life since others assume that men don’t have eating disorders. These disorders are just like other mental health illnesses in the sense that anyone can develop them, regardless of who they are.

For more information, go to the National Eating Disorders Association website. There is an abundance of information and statistics from multiple studies that may help one better understand eating disorders. If you think you or someone you love may be suffering from an eating disorder or other mental health illness, it’s not too late to ask for help. Thousands of resources are available. Seeking help is the first step towards a healthier mind.

Ashley Beatty-Pernetti
Ashley Beatty-Pernetti
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Ashley Beatty-Pernetti

Wife. Mom. Creator.

Raising mental health awareness with the written word and firsthand experience.

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