Anorexia nervosa (say
"an-uh-RECK-see-uh nur-VOH-suh") is a type of
eating disorder. People who have anorexia have an
intense fear of gaining weight. They severely limit the amount of food they eat
and can become dangerously thin.
Anorexia affects both the body
and the mind. It may start as dieting, but it gets out of control. You think
about food, dieting, and weight all the time. You have a distorted body image.
Other people say you are too thin, but when you look in the mirror, you see a
Anorexia usually starts in the teen years. It's much more common in females than males. Early
treatment can be very effective. But if not treated early, anorexia can become
a lifelong problem. Untreated anorexia can lead to starvation and serious
health problems, such as bone thinning (osteoporosis),
kidney damage, and heart problems. Some people die from these problems.
If you or someone you know has anorexia, get help right away. The longer
this problem goes on, the harder it is to overcome. With treatment, a person
with anorexia can feel better and stay at a healthy weight.
What causes anorexia?
Eating disorders are
complex, and experts don't really know what causes them. But they may be due to
a mix of family history, social factors, and personality traits. You may be
more likely to have anorexia if:
Other people in your family have
an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa.
You have a job or do a sport
that stresses body size, such as ballet, modeling, or gymnastics.
You are the type of person who tries to be perfect all the time, never feels
good enough, or worries a lot.
You are dealing with stressful
life events, such as divorce, moving to a new town or school, or losing a loved
What are the symptoms?
People who have anorexia
often strongly deny that they have a problem. They don't see or believe that
they do. It's usually up to their loved ones to get help for them. If you are
worried about someone, you can look for certain signs.
Weigh much less than is healthy or
Are very afraid of gaining weight.
stay at a normal weight.
Think they are overweight even when they
are very thin.
Their lives become focused on controlling their weight.
Obsess about food, weight, and
Strictly limit how much they eat.
Exercise a lot, even
when they are sick.
Vomit or use laxatives or water pills
(diuretics) to avoid weight gain.
How is anorexia diagnosed?
If your doctor thinks
that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will compare your weight with
the expected weight for someone of your height and age. He or she will also
check your heart, lungs, blood pressure, skin, and hair to look for problems
caused by not eating enough. You may also have blood tests or X-rays.
Your doctor may ask questions about how you feel. It is common for a
treatable mental health problem such as depression or anxiety to play a part in
an eating disorder.
How is it treated?
All people who have anorexia
need treatment. Even if you, your child, or someone else you care about has only a couple of the
signs of an eating disorder, get help now. Early treatment gives the best
chance of overcoming anorexia.
Treatment can help you get back to
and stay at a healthy weight. It can also help you learn good eating habits and learn to feel
better about yourself. Because anorexia is both a physical and emotional
problem, you may work with a doctor, a
dietitian, and a counselor.
If your weight
has dropped too low, you will need to be treated in a hospital.
take a long time to overcome, and it is common to fall back into unhealthy
habits. If you are having problems, don't try to handle them on your own. Get
What should you do if you think someone has anorexia?
It can be very scary to realize that someone you care about has an eating
disorder. But you can help.
If you think your child has anorexia:
Talk to her. Tell her why you are worried.
Let her know you care.
Make an appointment for you and your child to meet with a doctor or a counselor.
If you're worried about someone you know:
someone who can make a difference, like a parent, teacher, counselor, or doctor.
A person with anorexia may insist that she doesn't need help, but she does.
The sooner she gets treatment, the sooner she will be healthy again.
The cause of
anorexia nervosa is not fully understood. It is
thought to develop from a mix of physical, emotional, and social
Extreme dieting changes how the brain and
metabolism work, and it stresses the body. These
changes may make you more likely to develop an eating
Genetics play a big part in anorexia and
bulimia. Compared with people who don't have these
disorders, people who have eating disorders are more likely to have a family
history of an eating disorder, obesity, or a mood disorder (such as
If someone you know shows warning signs of suicide, make
sure that the person is not left alone. Seek help from a mental health
If you are
having suicidal thoughts, talk to someone about it. Call a local suicide
hotline, your local health department, or the national suicide hotline
(1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255), or seek help at a
local hospital emergency room.
Anorexia almost always begins with a plan to follow a strict weight-loss
diet. Limiting foods then leads to malnutrition and unhealthy weight loss.
malnutrition sets in, the brain and
metabolism change. This limits the appetite, how your
body uses food, and your ability to think clearly and make good
decisions. As the illness gets worse, irrational behaviors begin, such as making rules about food or making yourself vomit out of fear of gaining weight (bulimia).
After anorexia starts, returning to normal eating is very hard without help. When left untreated, anorexia
can last for a lifetime.
Early treatment of anorexia offers the best chance of recovery.
People who have anorexia tend
to strongly deny that they have a problem and are secretive about their eating. So their
family members or loved ones usually have to get help for them.
What Increases Your Risk
The risk for
anorexia nervosa increases if you:
Have a family history of an
eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa.
There is no single test that can diagnose
anorexia. But this illness has a visible effect on
your health and eating habits.
If your doctor thinks
that you may have an eating disorder, he or she will check you for signs of
malnutrition or starvation. Your doctor may also ask questions
about your mental well-being. It is common for a treatable mental health
problem (such as
obsessive-compulsive disorder) to happen with an
Common exams and tests for a possible eating
X-rays, which can show whether your
bones have been weakened (osteopenia) by malnutrition.
If your doctor thinks that you may have organ
damage, doing heart or kidney tests can be helpful.
All people with
anorexia need treatment. In most cases, this
involves seeing a doctor and having regular counseling
sessions. A hospital stay is needed for those who are seriously underweight or
who have severe medical problems. The goals of treatment are to restore a
healthy weight and healthy eating habits.
If you have an eating disorder, try not to resist treatment. Although
you may be very afraid of gaining weight, try to think of weight gain
as a life-saving measure. With help, you can learn to eat well and keep your
weight at a healthy level.
Ideally, you can take charge of
anorexia with the help of a team that includes a
mental health professional (such as a psychologist or licensed counselor), a
medical health professional (such as a doctor or nurse), and a
If your medical
condition is not life-threatening, your treatment likely will
Medical treatment. If
malnutrition or starvation has started to break down your body, medical
treatment will be a top priority. Your doctor will treat the
medical conditions that have been caused by anorexia, such as
osteoporosis, heart problems, or
depression. As you begin to get better, your doctor will continue to follow your health and weight.
Nutritional counseling. A registered dietitian will help you take charge of your
weight in a healthy way. You will learn healthy eating patterns and gain a good
understanding of nutrition.
For the teen with anorexia,
family involvement is a key part of treatment. Family therapy helps parents support their child, both emotionally and physically. It also supports parents in creating a normal eating pattern for their child. Any brothers or
sisters also need support during treatment. Family, group, and individual
counseling are all effective and are often combined.
If you need more help
Ongoing (chronic) forms of
anorexia may require treatment for many years,
including hospitalizations when needed. Ongoing treatment usually
includes psychological counseling. A counselor will help you make your own plan to use new
coping and stress management skills and prevent
relapse. Your counselor can help you at those times
when it is hard to follow healthy ways of thinking about food and your body.
Some people fully recover from anorexia. Many people with
anorexia have ups and downs over the years. Try thinking of treatment as an
anorexia causes life-threatening medical problems, you
need urgent medical treatment. A hospital stay is needed for those who are seriously underweight or
who have severe medical problems. This can include several weeks in the hospital followed by outpatient treatment to monitor your progress. Treatment includes:
This can include treating medical problems it has caused, such as dehydration,
electrolyte imbalance, or heart problems. If you can't
eat, you are given your nutrition in fluid form.
Nutritional rehabilitation. The medical team helps you work
toward a healthier weight carefully and gradually, learn when your body is
hungry and full, and start healthy eating patterns.
Insurance coverage varies for inpatient treatment of
eating disorders. Check with your insurance carrier to learn about your
What to think about
Anorexia can be a lifelong illness.
Many people who have anorexia recover, some improve, and some have problems
with anorexia throughout their lives.
People with anorexia who are young and who
start treatment early in their illness usually do well.
more difficult to treat when it has gone untreated for a long time.
Many people don't get treatment for mental health problems. You may not seek treatment because you think your symptoms are not bad enough or that you can work things out on your own. But
getting treatment is important.
There is no known way to prevent
anorexia nervosa. Early treatment may be the best way
to prevent the disorder from progressing. Knowing the early signs and seeking
treatment right away can help prevent
complications of anorexia.
For family members of children and teens
many ways adults can help children and teens form a healthy view of themselves
and learn to approach food and exercise with a positive attitude. Doing this
may prevent some children and teens from having this disorder.
Keep in mind that severe weight loss makes a person unable to think clearly or function
well in daily life. This is a sign that a loved one needs medical care.
There are no medicines to treat
anorexia nervosa. But if you are depressed or anxious,
your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant medicine.
An antidepressant may help if you also have
anxiety disorder, or
If you have anorexia and are taking medicine, you must have
regular checkups. Being malnourished or severely underweight can change the
amount of medicine in your body. Too much or too little can be dangerous.
During a checkup, your doctor will note your heart
rate, temperature, and blood pressure. You may also have blood tests to check
the amount of medicine in your blood.
Other Places To Get Help
KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and
Nemours Home Office
10140 Centurion Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32256
This website is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It
has a wide range of information about children's health—from allergies and
diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This website
offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing
age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can
sign up to get weekly emails about your area of interest.
Mental Health America
2000 North Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
1-800-969-NMHA (1-800-969-6642) referral service for help with depression (703) 684-7722
Mental Health America (formerly known as the National
Mental Health Association) is a nonprofit agency devoted to helping people of
all ages live mentally healthier lives. Its website has information about
mental health conditions. It also addresses issues such as grief, stress,
bullying, and more. It includes a confidential depression screening test for
anyone who would like to take it. The short test may help you decide whether
your symptoms are related to depression.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated
P.O. Box 640
Naperville, IL 60566
(630) 577-1330 (helpline)
This association distributes listings of therapists and
hospitals that work with people who have eating disorders. It sends out
materials and also offers support groups, conferences, and a crisis
National Eating Disorders Association
603 Stewart Street
Seattle, WA 98101
1-800-931-2237 (206) 382-3587
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is a large
nonprofit organization in the United States dedicated to the prevention of
eating disorders. NEDA helps educate people with eating disorders and their
families about their conditions and also provides information for health
professionals. The organization's Web site will help you locate treatment
referrals for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and issues surrounding
body image and weight.
National Institute of Mental Health
6001 Executive Boulevard
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides
information to help people better understand mental health, mental disorders,
and behavioral problems. NIMH does not provide referrals to mental health
professionals or treatment for mental health problems.
Weight-Control Information Network
1 WIN Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3665
The Weight-control Information Network (WIN) is a
service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney
Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. WIN supplies information
on weight control, obesity, and nutritional disorders for the public and for
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How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.