What Is anorexia?
Food is vital to life, yet eating disorders like anorexia affect at least 9% of the population worldwide. Anorexia is damaging to the body and the mind. When you have anorexia, you feel exhausted mentally and physically. But with the right treatment, you can recover.
Anorexia, officially anorexia nervosa, is a type of eating disorder characterized by extreme weight loss. Many people presume that people with anorexia are afraid of being fat, but it's more complex than that. Describing it as a phobia or extreme fear of being a normal weight would be more accurate.
This paralyzing fear drives people with this eating disorder to drastically reduce their food intake to dangerous levels. This need to consume as little as possible often leads to other dangerous behaviors like vomiting, over-exercising, and abusing laxatives.
But anorexia isn't just a disease that focuses on the physical. Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health problem that is associated with low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and obsessive thoughts.
Signs and symptoms of anorexia
The symptoms of anorexia are not always immediately clear. A dramatic weight loss could be caused by a different health condition. There are other behavioral signs that signal anorexia.
Behavioral signs of anorexia include:
- Obsessive thoughts about body weight
- Fear of gaining weight or desire to be thin
- Only eating low-calorie food
- Avoiding food deemed fattening
- Distorted body image (thinking you're overweight when you're underweight)
- Being deceptive about weight and eating habits
- Focusing only on food
- Excessive exercising
- Obsessive rituals around food and eating habits
Anorexia can also have physical symptoms. Those experiencing anorexia may feel:
Causes of anorexia
Anorexia isn't caused by one thing. There are several factors that contribute to it, and the root cause varies from person to person.
Below are common causes that push people into anorexia:
- Low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness
- Social pressure and beauty standards
- Genetic risk from family members with an eating disorder or mental illness
- Criticism or bullying about weight from peers
- Certain activities like ballet, athletics, and modeling
When to see the doctor for anorexia
If you're concerned that you or a loved one has anorexia, it's crucial to seek help as soon as possible. Treating this eating disorder early on is critical to a successful long-term recovery. Initially, you'll consult with your doctor who can check on your overall health and refer you to specialists.
While you can get a diagnosis from a dietician, nutritionist, or psychiatrist, it's best to start with your primary care doctor so they can assess your health and recommend other medical professionals and treatments.
Diagnosing anorexia involves several exams and tests, which help doctors determine your physical and mental state. This also helps them rule out any other potential causes of weight loss.
The first part of this process is a physical exam. Your doctor will need to evaluate your weight. If it is lower than 85% for your age and height, that is an indicator of anorexia. They'll also check your vital signs like blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.
Since mental health is a large component of anorexia nervosa, a psychological evaluation is usually necessary for a diagnosis. This examination is performed by a doctor or mental health professional. They'll ask questions about your feelings about food, and eating habits.
You might be asked to complete a self-assessment questionnaire, likely from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Since anorexia can cause so much damage to the body, your doctor may also conduct tests to make sure your general health is good. Some common lab tests include:
- A complete blood count (CBC)
- Comprehensive Metabolic Profile (CMP), which measures blood glucose, electrolytes, liver enzymes, and more
- Electrocardiogram (ECG)
- Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) to assess bone mineral density
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Treatments for anorexia
The complexity of anorexia nervosa means that treating it requires a multidisciplinary approach. There are different types of treatments to help you re-gain weight and to help with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Treatment usually includes psychological counseling, nutritional support, and help with behavioral changes.
Getting back to a healthy weight is essential to recovery, which is why nutritional therapy is the first step in treating anorexia. Not only is adopting healthy eating habits necessary for the body, but it's important for your mental health as well. Starvation affects the brain and how people think. In people with anorexia, this usually comes out as negative, manipulative, and obsessive thinking.
This step includes creating closely monitored eating plans and targeted weight gain goals. In addition to this, your weight and eating habits will likely be tracked by a health care provider.
Either your doctor or a mental health specialist will work to change your mindset about food and weight. They may use positive reinforcement, praise, and encourage self-reflection to create new positive beliefs about food. Psychological counseling isn't just meant to help you have a better view of food but to help you recognize the problems with your old way of thinking.
Talk therapies are common for treating anorexia nervosa. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered particularly effective for treating anorexia. It focuses on correcting dysfunctional thought patterns, which are often at the core of anorexia and restrictive eating.
Depending on your mental health, your doctor may recommend certain medications to help with the psychological effects of anorexia. The most common medicine prescribed is antidepressants because they may help with depression, anxiety, and obsessive thoughts related to anorexia and recovery. For a small number of people, antipsychotics may also be prescribed to assist obsessive thinking.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Eating Disorders Victoria: "Talking to my doctor."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Treating anorexia nervosa."
Mental Health Foundation: "Anorexia nervosa."
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: "Eating Disorder Statistics."
National Eating Disorders: "Anorexia Nervosa."
National Eating Disorders Association: "Evaluation and Diagnosis."
Newbridge Care Systems: "What are the causes of Anorexia."
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