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Understanding Anorexia Nervosa

Understanding Anorexia

People suffering from anorexia cut down on their food intake drastically, which causes dramatic weight loss. They will often use tools such as excessive exercise, purging, laxatives, enemas and diuretics to lose more weight.

Most people with anorexia have a distorted view of their body and an intense fear of gaining weight. One of the most obvious symptoms is anxiety around food, with the person skipping meals, cutting out types of food, being secretive about eating, and severely restricting.

The nature of the disorder means anorexia sufferers may truly believe that they don't have a problem. The nature of the illness, combined with the effects of malnutrition often also cause personality changes, mood swings, and confrontational behaviour, particularly around food.

It can be difficult to decide if your loved one has an eating disorder or is simply getting carried away with dieting or food fads or maybe behaving like a "typical teenager". People with the disorder often make a huge effort to disguise their eating and body changes, and commonly deny that anything is wrong. This is a not a deliberate or deceitful act on their part, but a common characteristic of the disease.

Get more in-depth information about Anorexia here.

If you think your loved one may have anorexia, look out for these warning signs.

Changes to behaviour

  • Skipping meals or refusing to eat 
  •  Being secretive around food 
  • Cutting out all 'unhealthy' foods or eating a limited number of foods
  • Making excuses for not eating and denying hunger
  • Rigid rituals around food, such as cutting food into tiny pieces
  • Weighing and measuring food
  • Drinking a lot of water or chewing gum constantly
  • Cooking for others but refusing to eat
  • Frequently weighing and checking themselves in the mirror
  • Excessive exercise
  • Purging or vomiting
  • Wearing baggy or layered clothing
  • Frequent complaints about feeling fat, full, or bloated
  • Constant preoccupation with food

Psychological changes

  • Distorted perception - a wide gap between self image and actual appearance
  • Difficulty concentrating, restlessness or hyperactivity, forgetfulness
  • Poor judgement
  • Denial or refusing to acknowledge the severity of the problem
  • Obsessive compulsive behaviour
  • Depression – loss of interest in friends and activities, lack of spontaneity, lack of initiative, flattened emotional responses, irritability, insomnia, and diminished interest in sex. 
  • Changes in personality or mood swings

Physical changes

  • Unusually thin appearance (not always dramatic or noticeable)
  • Absence of periods in girls and women
  • Fatigue, dizziness or fainting
  • Brittle nails, hair thinning, breaking or falling out
  • Soft, downy hair covering the body
  • Constipation and abdominal pain, bloating
  • Dry skin
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Abnormal blood count
  • Irregular heart rhythms, low pulse
  • Low blood pressure
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of bone mass

If you or a loved one is showing signs of anorexia, it's important to seek help straight away. Anorexia is a very serious illness, but it can be cured, especially if it's found and treated early.

The first step is to visit the GP and ask for a referral to an Eating Disorder specialist service