Anorexia typically begins around puberty, but can occur at any age. It is a life threatening mental illness characterized, over a period of at least three months, by:
- Persistent behaviours that interfere with maintaining an adequate weight for health. Typically, these behaviours include: restricting food, compensating for food intake through intense exercise, and/or purging through self-induced vomiting or misuse of medications like laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or insulin. Anorexia was previously associated specifically with weight loss, making it difficult to recognize in children and adolescents. Children and adolescents need to gain weight in order to support healthy growth and development; therefore failing to gain weight or grow is just as concerning as weight loss;
- A powerful fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. The individual may feel this way even if they are maintaining a weight that is too low for their health. Their fear may translate into the use of a variety of techniques to evaluate their body size or weight – behaviour known as body checking. These techniques can include frequent weighing, obsessive measuring of body parts and the persistent use of mirrors to check for “fat.” It is important to note that weight loss or a lack of weight gain rarely calms body anxieties;
- Disturbance in how the person experiences their weight and shape. The person overestimates their body size, usually evaluates it negatively, and feels their weight and shape matter more than most anything else about them; and
- The person does not fully appreciate the seriousness of their condition. Anorexia is linked with cardiac arrest, suicidality, and other causes of death.
Anorexia was previously associated with the loss of menstrual periods which made it difficult or impossible to identify in males or in pre-pubescent children or teens – this aspect is no longer necessary for diagnosis.
Other symptoms may include:
- Depressed mood
- Anxiety (especially social anxiety)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Social withdrawal
- Irritability, insomnia, and intense preoccupation with food, all of which can be directly related to insufficient nutrition
- Feelings of inefficacy
- Rigid, all-or-nothing thinking
- Strong desire for control
While the causes of anorexia nervosa are not completely understood by medical and psychological professionals, it is acknowledged that an array of biological, social, genetic, and psychological factors play a role in increasing the risk of its onset.
All information taken from the National Eating Disorder Information Centre website © 2014