Roughly one percent of females will develop anorexia at some point in their life. Although it most commonly occurs in adolescent and young adult females, it can and does affect males at times. Anorexia can be best described as a relentless pursuit of thinness, combined with an unwillingness to maintain a healthy weight. Individuals with anorexia tend to see themselves as being overweight, even when they are clearly not and perhaps even malnourished. In general, they have an extremely distorted body image and an intense fear of gaining weight. Although the symptoms can vary, common warning signs include deliberate attempts to restrict eating, a persistent and intense fear of weight gain, continuous dieting, compulsive exercising, abnormal weight loss, absent or irregular menstruation, and hair loss.

Anorexia has traditionally been defined as weighing at least 15% below one’s ideal body weight. Of course, not everyone who is of low weight is anorexia. A refusal to maintain a normal weight is a key factor in identifying whether or not someone may have anorexia.

Individuals with anorexia are generally preoccupied with their weight, often leading to excessive dieting and exercising. They often avoid specific foods that are high in fat and calories; however, they often think about food. For example, they might focus on how many calories they have consumed that day, and then calculate how much exercise they need in order to compensate for what they ate. At the extreme, they will starve themselves.

Individuals with anorexia often go to great lengths to hide their fears about eating and gaining weight. They may, for example, eat very slowly, move the food around on their plate without actually eating it, or avoid social settings that involve food altogether. In general, they spend a lot of time thinking about and controlling situations in which they might be expected to eat. In some cases, the person’s entire life might be centered around their fear of gaining weight, which can affect their relationships with friends and family.

When someone with anorexia looks in a mirror, they see a very different image than the rest of the world sees. They tend to see themselves as overweight, unattractive, and unappealing. Although they may acknowledge that they are thin, they tend to underestimate the amount of danger involved in what they are doing. The death rate for anorexia is higher than any other psychological condition.

There is no precise cause of anorexia; however, professionals tend to agree that it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Eating disorders often run in families. In fact, a close relative of someone with an eating disorder is 10 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than someone without any family history of an eating disorder. Certain neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and serotonin are believed to play a role as well. Certain behavioral and environmental influences can also contribute to the development of anorexia, such as stressful life events, a controlling environment, or inappropriate comments made by influential people (parents, coaches etc.).

Although anorexia is difficult to treat, research shows that with effective treatment, roughly one-half recover completely, while many others will experiences intermittent periods of recovery and relapse. A small minority of individuals will continue to experience chronic symptoms. Treatment approaches vary, but often include individual and group therapy. Some will require residential or inpatient treatment.

By, Rick Biesinger PsyD