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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Lott

What is Anorexia?

World Eating Disorders Awareness Week

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia Nervosa is a psychological illness with devastating physical consequences. Anorexia Nervosa is characterised by low body weight and body image distortion, with an obsessive fear of gaining weight which manifests itself through depriving the body of food. It often coincides with increased levels of exercise.

There are two main sub-types of anorexia:

Restricting type: this is the most commonly known type of Anorexia Nervosa whereby a person severely restricts their food intake. Restriction may take many forms (e.g. maintaining very low calorie count; restricting types of food eaten; eating only one meal a day) and may follow obsessive and rigid rules (e.g. only eating food of one colour).

Binge-eating or purging type: less recognised; a person restricts their intake as above, but also during some bouts of restriction the person has regularly engaged in binge-eating OR purging behaviour (e.g. self induced vomiting, over-exercise, misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas).

Who gets Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia Nervosa usually develops during adolescence and generally has an earlier age of onset than Bulimia Nervosa and Binge Eating Disorder (the latter are often developed during late adolescence or early adulthood). However like all eating disorders, anorexia can develop at any age or stage of life for both males and females. It is a myth that only adolescent girls experience anorexia.

What causes Anorexia?

There is no single cause of anorexia, although knowledge of genetic influences on liability to eating disorders has grown rapidly over the past three decades. A landmark study led by UNC School of Medicine researchers has identified the first genetic locus for anorexia nervosa and has revealed that there may also be metabolic underpinnings to this potentially deadly illness.

Warning Signs of Anorexia

  • Preoccupation with body shape, weight and/or appearance

  • Intense fear of gaining weight

  • Preoccupation with food or food related activities

  • Negative or distorted body image; perceiving self to be fat when at a healthy weight/underweight

  • Low self-esteem (guilt, self-criticism, worthlessness)

  • Rigid thinking (‘black and white’, ‘good and bad’ foods)

  • Feeling out of control

  • Mood swings

  • Anxiety or depression

  • Heightened anxiety around meal times

  • Heightened sensitivity to comments or criticism about body shape/weight/appearance/eating/exercise habits

  • Suicidal or self-harm thoughts or behaviours

  • Constant or repetitive dieting/restrictive or rigid eating patterns

  • Excessive or compulsive exercise

  • Changes in clothing style

  • Impaired school or work performance

  • Obsessive rituals around food

  • Changes in food preferences

  • Frequent avoidance of eating meals / excuses not to eat

  • Social withdrawal / avoidance of social situations involving food

  • Repetitive or obsessive body-checking behaviours

  • Deceptive or secretive behaviour around food

Physical Signs and Effects of Anorexia

Recovery and Treatment

Anorexia is the most fatal of all psychiatric illnesses. Extreme food restriction can lead to starvation, malnutrition and a dangerously low body weight – all of which are synonymous with a host of health problems. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Recovery,however, is possible, no matter how long individuals have struggled with the anorexia, although early treatment does increase chances of full recovery. If you are worried about yourself or someone you know, contact your GP, CAMHS or email us on

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