What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that has a number of unique characteristics. There are a noticable physical effects as well as common signs of anorexia, as well as different experiences that may cause people to develop anorexia. But there are also lots of different treatments and things you can do if you think that you, or someone you know has developed an eating disorder.

This can help if:

  • You’re afraid of putting on weight
  • You’ve started restricting how much food you eat
  • You don’t like eating around other people
  • You exercise to excess
  • You weigh yourself all the time 
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Characteristics of anorexia

Anorexia nervosa (commonly referred to as anorexia) is a type of eating disorder. Eating disorders refer to a group of illnesses where someone has a distorted view of body shape and weight and they have extreme disturbances in their eating behaviour.

Anorexia can mean people:

  • Have extreme concerns about weight
  • Develop intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat beyond what is normal
  • Deliberate maintenance of a very low body weight despite potential health consequences which can include absent menstrual cycles
People with anorexia often have an intense desire for weight loss and to be thin. Although people with anorexia are usually underweight, they generally believe that they are "fat". Food, calories, exercise, weight and appearance often become the main focus for someone who has anorexia and it can be difficult to think about much else.

However anorexia is not, as many people think, about appearance or weight. For people with anorexia nervosa, losing weight is really just a symptom of something more complex. For some people it is a way to develop a sense of identity and self-worth. It can also be seen as a way of controlling an aspect of their life when other parts of life seem messy or complex. Some people use it as a method of avoiding strong and unpleasant emotion or problems that have no clear cut solution, or a way to express pain and anxiety when expressing such emotion is too frightening to think about.

What causes anorexia nervosa?

Eating disorders such as anorexia develop through a combination of factors. Some of these factors include:
  • Cultural emphasis or preoccupation with body image ideals
  • Problems in relationships with friends and family
  • Genetic risk factors such as family members that have had eating disorder problems
  • A feeling of lack of control over one's life
  • An inability to cope with, and manage, emotions or feelings or challenges in life such as moving from childhood to adolescence or adolescence to adulthood
Eating disorders are a result of a combination of factors working together; they’re not caused by one single thing. Regardless of the causes or reasons, it is important to remember that people with anorexia can and do recover but that it can be a difficult road. Getting help as early as possible improves your chance of recovery.

Common signs of anorexia

Some of the common signs of anorexia may be:
  • Being afraid of putting on weight
  • Calorie counting and/or obsessively avoiding high fat food and/or having a narrow range of “safe” food that is okay to eat
  • Not wanting to eat and doing things to avoid eating
  • Being hungry but not wanting to admit it
  • Over exercising or doing other things to get rid of the calories
  • Obsessive weighing or body checking – sometimes several times per day
  • Getting cold easily
  • Avoiding social outings with family and friends
If you are experiencing any of these things, it may be helpful to talk with someone you trust, like a family member, teacher, psychologist or local doctor.

Physical effects of anorexia

Physical effects of anorexia include:

  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Dry skin
  • Yellowing skin
  • A soft downy hair growing all over your body including your face and back
  • Irregular heart beat which can increase your risk of having a heart attack
  • Brain dysfunction such as difficulty with concentrating, memory and doing school work
  • Development of osteoporosis and bone difficulties

What to do if this sounds like you

Many people with eating disorders feel that they are not "sick enough" or "thin enough" to warrant receiving help for their disorder. Even if you’re not sure if you have a diagnosable eating disorder, it’s important that you talk to someone about it if you’re worried. Your concerns should be taken seriously, regardless of what you weigh or of how much or how little you eat. Even if you are overweight, the effects of severely restricting your food can put you at medical risk.

It is a good idea to try and find help sooner rather than later. The longer someone has experienced anorexia nervosa the more difficult it is to start recovering. However, anorexia nervosa is treatable and there are a number of services out there to help you recover.

It can be hard to know where to find the right support you need. ReachOut NextStep is an anonymous online tool that recommends relevant support options based on what you want help with. Try ReachOut NextStep to learn about the support options available for you.

What can I do now?

  • Contact The Butterfly Foundation for more information.
  • Get personalised support options for anorexia with the ReachOut NextStep tool.
  • Talk to your doctor if you’re restricting your food in any way.
  • Don’t weigh yourself or your food.