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anorexia nervosa

What’s Anorexia Nervosa? Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Estimates believe about 30 million Americans will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. While anorexia nervosa is a well-known eating disorder, around 0.3%-0.4% of women and 0.1% of men will suffer from anorexia. However, these numbers might be higher since many cases go unreported. Some statistics go to say that about two percent of females will develop anorexia. Let’s explore the ins and outs of this prevalent eating disorder and how you can find treatment. 

Understanding Eating Disorders

First, let’s look at the concept of eating disorders. These are serious mental health and physical illnesses that affect people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Most conditions involve focusing too much on your weight, body shape, and food choices. Their obsession with these items often leads to dangerous eating behaviors that impact their body’s ability to get proper nutrition. 

Diagnostic Criteria for Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by weight loss, difficulties maintaining an appropriate body weight for height and age, and in many individuals, a sense of distorted body image. People struggling with this condition often restrict themselves from calories or might engage purging behaviors or exercise excessively.

The DSM-5 explains three diagnostic criteria to point to someone’s anorexia disorder:

  1. Restriction of calorie intake relative to requirements leading to significantly low body weight.
  2. Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming at, even when they’re underweight. 
  3. Disturbance in the way someone sees their body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of their current low body weight. 

Even if someone doesn’t meet these criteria, they can still be suffering from an eating disorder. Atypical anorexia can occur in someone who meets the criteria but is not underweight despite significant weight loss. 

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms

Beyond maintaining a low weight, people with anorexia show very different symptoms. Not to mention, sometimes they also struggle with co-occurring disorders like binge eating and bulimia, including induced vomiting behaviors. These are some of the most common symptoms and signs you’ll be able to recognize in someone with anorexia. 

Emotional and Behavioral Signs

Someone with anorexia will display subtle behavioral and emotional signs that often go unnoticed for a long time. These symptoms are relatively common among teenagers, and many parents dismiss them thinking it’s “common teenager behavior.” 

  • Always preoccupied with weight, calories, dieting, and food
  • Makes frequent comments about foods, and talk about restricting carbs or fats
  • Consistently makes excuses to avoid mealtimes or situations involving food
  • Withdraws from friends and family, as well as activities becoming more isolated
  • Expresses an intense fear of weight gain or being fat, even though they’re overweight
  • Becomes obsessive-compulsive about the way they eat, exercise, and other areas of their life


The physical signs of anorexia are more noticeable and usually more alarming than emotional ones. Besides the extreme weight loss, other signs point to a nutrient deficiency and a severely underweight person. Beware of signs of anorexia, including:

  • Stomach cramps and other gastrointestinal complaints
  • Abnormal laboratory findings such as anemia and low blood cell counts
  • Dizziness, fainting and feeling cold all the time
  • Menstrual irregularities in women
  • Thinning of hair, as well as dry and brittle nails
  • Impaired immune functioning 

What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?

Unfortunately, the cause of anorexia nervosa remains unknown. Like most eating disorders, it’s a combination of low self-esteem, poor self-image, and other factors like biology and the environment. Peer pressure and unrealistic expectations of someone’s body all play a role. 


Some evidence suggests that genetics and hormones affect the onset of anorexia. There might be a connection between serotonin levels, a chemical produced in the brain, and the gut that controls mood and behavior. 


Pressure from society to look thin and achieve unrealistic body types can also contribute to the onset of this eating disorder. Young people are highly influenced by magazines, social media, and television, or movies to forge their image of the perfect body. 


Those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to maintain strict diets and exercise regimens that could lead to anorexia. Because they’re more prone to obsession and compulsions, it’s expected for them to become unhealthily obsessed with their bodies and overall image. 

Treatment Options

Luckily, there are treatments available for anorexia. However, the first step to recovery is acknowledging you have a disorder. Many people struggling with eating disorders don’t believe they’re sick, let alone need help. Treatment focuses on restoring the body to average weight and establishing healthy eating habits. For many, treatment for anorexia nervosa is a lifelong recovery journey.


The first step is to seek therapy. Usually, a combination of individual, family and group therapy is part of a comprehensive and integral treatment plan. Most of the time, for individual sessions, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is used to treat eating disorders. CBt helps change unhealthy thoughts and behaviors while also providing coping mechanisms to manage triggers and start building self-esteem.

Family therapy is paramount. It gets the family involved so they can be a support and teach everyone how to cope with anorexia. As well as ensure your family can monitor healthy eating habits and lifestyle after treatment.

Finally, group therapy offers a unique opportunity to connect with others struggling with eating disorders. It’s important to attend group therapists led by qualified medical professionals as someone struggling with anorexia is likely to compete against others in the group for the thinnest person in the room and other destructive behaviors. 


There isn’t a cure for anorexia, nor a medication that can reverse the effects of eating disorders. However, in some treatment plans, medicines such as antidepressants can help with anxiety and depression symptoms common in those with anorexia. The idea is to reduce the potential triggers so that the person can focus on their healing and progress.


In severe cases, hospitalization might be necessary to treat the effects of anorexia. Some expected health consequences include electrolyte imbalances, low blood pressure, cardiac arrest, and other life-threatening conditions. In this case, individuals are often placed on a feeding tube and intravenous fluids to restore their body’s nutrients and balances. 

If someone refuses to eat, take their medicines, or exhibits psychiatric issues, hospitalization might be required as a more intensive form of treatment. 

Finding Help

With the right support and treatment program, most people recover for anorexia. However, there’s a percentage who don’t. Anorexia can be a deadly condition. Sometimes people go on to develop other eating disorders, or fall through the cracks and end up with a substance use disorder as well. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, seek medical advice today. Overcoming an eating disorder is a lifelong journey that requires the right support system by your side. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we know that many people struggling with addiction also suffer from eating disorders and other co-occurring mental illnesses. This is why we also focus on eating disorder treatments as part of our holistic programs. 

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