Understanding Anorexia -- the Basics

What Is Anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa, anorexia for short, is an eating disorder that can have fatal consequences. People suffering from anorexia consume very restrictive quantities of food, which leads to starvation. Eventually they can become dangerously thin and malnourished -- yet still perceive themselves as overweight. Frequently, people with anorexia become so undernourished that they have to be hospitalized. Even then they deny that anything is wrong with them.

Anorexia usually develops during puberty. Nine out of 10 people with anorexia are female and about 1 percent of U.S. females between ages 10 and 25 is anorexic. A person can be considered anorexic when she restricts her food intake to such an extent it leads to significantly low body weight accompanied by an intense fear of gaining weight and an excessive concern with body weight or shape.

There are two subtypes of anorexia: One type is linked to a different type of eating disorder called bulimia, which is characterized by ''bingeing and purging;'' a person eats and then deliberately vomits. The other subtype manifests itself through severe restriction of food and calories.

A person with anorexia becomes obsessed about food and weight. She or he may develop peculiar eating rituals, such as refusing to eat in front of other people or arranging food on the plate in a certain order. Many people with anorexia seem to care a lot about food. They may collect cookbooks and prepare sumptuous meals for their friends and families -- but they don't join in. Often, they also maintain an intensive exercise regimen.

What Causes Anorexia?

The exact causes of anorexia nervosa are unknown. However, the condition sometimes runs in families; young women with a parent or sibling with an eating disorder are likelier to develop one themselves.

Then there are psychological, environmental, and social factors that may contribute to the development of anorexia. People with anorexia come to believe that their lives would be better if only they were thinner. These people tend to be perfectionists and overachievers. In fact, the typical anorexic person is a good student involved in school and community activities. Many experts think that anorexia is part of an unconscious attempt to come to terms with unresolved conflicts or painful childhood experiences. While sexual abuse has been shown to be a factor in the development of bulimia, it is not associated with the development of anorexia.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on February 11, 2017

Sources

SOURCES: 

Hales, R., and Yudofsky, S. (editors), Textbook of Clinical Psychiatry, 4th edition, American Psychiatric Publishing, 2003. 

Brewerton, T., Clinical Handbook of Eating Disorders: An Integrated Approach - Edition 1, Marcel Dekker, Inc, 2004.

Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders website.

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