Eating Disorder: The Warning Signs of Anorexia
Body image struggles plague almost everyone at some point in their lives. Many people are concerned about gaining too much weight, especially with the social stigmas and physical health complications surrounding obesity. Concerns about maintaining a healthy weight for health reasons are legitimate. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the obesity prevalence in America in 2017 and 2018 was over 42%. In these cases, people often turn to their medical provider for advice and assistance in attaining and maintaining a healthy weight.
In some people, however, the worry about weight becomes obsessive. As fears about ideal weight and ideal body image take over, anorexia sets in. Anorexia is a form of disordered eating. It can lead to severe and unhealthy weight loss along with other potentially dangerous symptoms. Anorexia can lead to new or worsening medical and mental health conditions. Without treatment in a specialized program for disordered eating like Meadowglade, anorexia can lead to significant health deterioration and death.
What is Anorexia?
Anorexia is an eating disorder that leads to excessive weight loss due to self-starvation. Someone with anorexia will intentionally eat a very low-calorie diet to maintain a weight that is often far below average for their body shape and size. They may also exercise to excess to “burn off” calories.
Anorexia is categorized into two types. The first, the restricting type, is characterized by severe restrictions on food intake. Someone with this type of anorexia will limit the quantity and type of food they consume. Depending on the individual, they may count calories, skip meals, avoid specific food categories (such as sugar or carbs) or follow obsessive rules regarding food.
The second type of anorexia is the binge-eating and purging type. This is not to be confused with Bulimia, a separate eating disorder that shares some similarities in symptoms. This type of anorexia can be very dangerous and life-threatening. Someone with the binge and purging type of anorexia will eat and then actively purge what they have eaten from their body. Purging may be accomplished by diuretics, enemas, misuse, or laxatives, or forced vomiting.
Anorexia is likely to eating disorder most people know about. This does not mean it is the most common. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It is estimated that between.05 and 3.7% of women suffer from anorexia nervosa at some point in their lifetime. Although disordered eating is most often associated with females, males also develop similar body image or weight-related struggles that lead them to alter their eating habits in potentially dangerous ways. Male eating disorders are equally as life-threatening and require immediate, evidence-based mental health and medical treatment. While the percentage of males with eating disorders is estimated to be lower than females, it is estimated that 10 to 15% of those who are diagnosed with anorexia are male.
Several studies indicate approximately 1% of female adolescents and teens have anorexia. Unfortunately, this number is likely significantly lower than the actual number and does not accurately represent how many young adults struggle with anorexia. The average age of onset for anorexia nervosa is around the same time as puberty. This means the onset of disordered eating symptoms and their medical challenges combine with a critical stage in team development.
In addition to medical and psychological complications of anorexia nervosa, the rate of suicide and self-harm related to anorexia diagnosis is far higher than seen in those without anorexia. A 2003 study found that individuals with anorexia are approximately 56 times more likely to commit suicide than those without the disorder. In addition, teen and young adult women with anorexia are 12 times more likely to die either from self-harm or from complications associated with the illness than other females of the same age group without anorexia.
Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
Anorexia nervosa, commonly referred to as anorexia, is an eating disorder characterized by abnormally low body weight, distorted perception of body weight, and an intense fear of gaining weight. Someone who struggles with anorexia often places significant value on controlling their weight and body shape and will go to extreme lengths to ensure that their body weight remains the same.
The signs and symptoms of anorexia include physical, behavioral, and emotional challenges. Depending on the individual, it may be difficult to notice some signs and symptoms as what may be considered a low body weight for one person could be a healthy body weight for another. In addition, someone who struggles with anorexia often successfully hides or disguises body weight, abnormal eating habits, or physical challenges associated with their illness.
Physical signs and symptoms of anorexia may be the easiest to see. Some of the most common include extreme weight loss (or failure to properly gain weight as an adolescent or teen), abnormal blood counts, insomnia, exhaustion, dizziness or fainting spells, thinning hair or hair loss, stomach problems, irregular heart rate, and in females, absence of menstruation.
Behavioral and Emotional Symptoms
Many behavioral symptoms of anorexia relate to eating or attempting to lose weight. Someone with anorexia may severely restrict food intake through dieting or fasting, participate in excessive exercise, skip meals, make excuses for not eating, adopt rigid eating rituals, not eat in public, continually check weight, withdraw from friends and family, or lie about eating.
What Causes Anorexia
The exact cause or causes of anorexia is unknown. As with many mental illnesses, a combination of psychological, biological, and environmental factors likely contributes to the development of anorexia.
Although research has yet to identify the specific gene or set of genes, it is believed there is a genetic change that puts some people at higher risk for developing anorexia. Some people may have certain genetic predispositions, such as a tendency towards perfection, which could contribute to the development of the illness.
Some who develop anorexia may have obsessive-compulsive personality traits that make it easier to adhere to strict diets or ignore eating even though they are hungry. An extreme drive for perfectionism may cause them to believe that they are never thin enough, and high levels of anxiety surrounding body image allow them to engage in restrictive eating to reduce their anxiety symptoms.
Factors such as peer pressure, athletic expectations, social pressure, and similar stressors (especially for young girls) may contribute to the desire to be thin.
Types of Anorexia
Many people think of anorexia as one illness. In fact, anorexia nervosa is divided into two subtypes. The first is the restricting type which involves severe limitation of food intake. Food restriction is the primary means of weight loss and weight management. The second type is the binge-eating/purging type. With this subtype, there are periods of food intake that are then compensated by vomiting, laxative, or diuretic abuse. Excessive exercise is also used to “get rid” of excess calories and maintain or lose weight after binging.
Anorexia athletica is a type of disordered eating that specifically impacts athletes. To maintain or lose weight, athletes with anorexia athletica will take in a very limited number of calories despite high levels of physical activity. People with anorexia athletica lose at least five percent of their body weight due to calorie restriction and excessive exercise. Someone with anorexia athletica generally meets some but not all the criteria for other eating disorders as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5). For this reason, anorexia athletica often falls into the category “eating disorder not otherwise specified” or EDNOS.
Someone with atypical anorexia will exhibit many of the same criteria required for an anorexia nervosa diagnosis. However, they will not have significant weight loss. Often someone with atypical anorexia will fall within or above a “normal” weight range for their age, sex, etc. Therefore, their presentation is considered atypical. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), atypical anorexia nervosa is categorized under Other Specified Feeding or eating disorders (OFSTED), which is one of the most prevalent eating disorders among adults today.
Anorexia Treatment and Recovery
Without proper diagnosis and treatment, as many as 20% of people with anorexia will die from health complications related to disordered eating. Conversely, 60% of people with an eating disorder will make a full recovery after seeking comprehensive treatment at Meadowglade. Treatment for disordered eating is the most successful when intervention is early. Early intervention allows medical and mental health professionals to provide treatment, support, and guidance before many of the potential medical effects associated with disordered eating begin to adversely impact physical and psychological health.
Inpatient residential treatment is the most successful environment for someone looking to heal from disordered eating. For a treatment program to be successful, it must be comprehensive and address the whole person. Treatment programs at Meadowglade include medical care, mental health care, nutritional education, and counseling to help you understand the roots of disordered eating and how to overcome the challenges related to anorexia.
If you or a loved one struggles with anorexia nervosa or another type of disordered eating, it is vital to seek help immediately. Eating disorders can quickly lead to significant physical and psychological health compilations. In the most severe cases, untreated disordered eating can lead to life-threatening medical emergencies. At Meadowglade, our caring and compassionate treatment team have many years of experience helping our patients overcome and heal from the impacts of disordered eating. We will work with you to create a treatment plan including therapy, medical care, and ongoing aftercare after treatment here at Meadowglade has ended. To learn more about our program at Meadowglade, contact our admissions team today.