What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder with some unique characteristics, such as an obsessive fear of gaining weight, distorted body image and low body weight. Anorexia nervosa can have a devastating impact on your physical health, so it’s important to find out what you can do to recognise the symptoms and get help.

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

  • after you’ve eaten, you try to rid your body of the food

  • you’re worried a friend or family member might have anorexia.

Girl with blue eyes in yellow shirt


A unique characteristic of anorexia nervosa is that the person is underweight but believes they are ‘fat’. Someone with anorexia nervosa will attempt to maintain a low body weight by restricting the amount of food they eat, regardless of the serious physical consequences. Food, calories, exercise, weight and appearance become an obsession, making it difficult for them to think about much else.

For people with anorexia nervosa, limiting food intake and losing weight are often ways of feeling a sense of control in areas of their life that otherwise feel out of control. Their body image might define their sense of self-worth, and restricting what they eat may be a way of coping with unpleasant or frightening emotions such as sadness or anxiety.

Common signs

Some of the common signs of anorexia nervosa are:

  • intense fear of putting on weight

  • counting calories, obsessively avoiding certain foods, or having a narrow range of ‘safe’ foods that are okay to eat

  • not wanting to eat, and doing things to avoid eating

  • not wanting to admit being hungry

  • over-exercising or doing other things to ‘get rid’ of the calories

  • obsessive weighing, looking in the mirror or body checking (pinching waist or wrists)

  • excessive use of laxatives, appetite suppressants, enemas and diuretics

  • avoiding social outings with family and friends.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk with someone you trust, such as a family member, teacher, psychologist or doctor.

Physical effects of anorexia

Some of the physical effects of anorexia nervosa may include:

  • brittle hair and nails

  • dry or yellowing skin

  • feeling cold easily

  • a soft downy hair growing all over your body

  • irregular heartbeat, which can increase your risk of having a heart attack

  • difficulty with concentration and memory

  • development of osteoporosis and bone difficulties

  • irregular or no menstrual periods.

What to do if this sounds like you

Many people with eating disorders feel that they’re not ‘sick enough’ or ‘thin enough’ to need help. Even if you’re not sure whether or not you have a diagnosable eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa, it’s important that you talk to someone. The effects of severely restricting your food intake or of making yourself vomit can put you at risk of serious medical complications regardless of how much you weigh.

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. It can help you work out what's going on and provide personalised support recommendations. Try the ReachOut NextStep tool to learn about the support options available for you.

What can I do now?

  • Make an appointment with your GP to have an overall health check and discuss options for support.

  • Contact The Butterfly Foundation for more information.

  • Read about self-help tools for eating disorders.