Anorexia is an eating disorder that causes fear of weight gain and behaviors that impact your health and relationships.

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If you have anorexia, you might believe you’re carrying more weight or that your body is larger than it actually is.

Anorexia causes behaviors like:

  • dieting
  • restricting food intake
  • compulsive exercising
  • purging

In addition to causing medical concerns, anorexia can impact your emotional well-being by cutting you off from supportive people in your life.

Anyone can experience anorexia. While women are more likely to get a diagnosis, some research suggests that eating disorder stigma could play a role in the low rate of diagnosis for men.

It’s true that anorexia can have serious health impacts. But treatment has helped many people recover, and it could help you too.

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that impacts many parts of a person’s life. It usually involves restricting food and a focus on body size. But anorexia might be better understood through the lens of its effect on a person’s overall well-being through control, shame, and self-esteem.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) uses the body mass index (BMI) as part of the guidelines for anorexia diagnosis.

While anorexia is often linked to low BMI, some with anorexia may not show as low or even average weight according to the BMI. People with other anorexia symptoms but who aren’t seen as low weight could be living with atypical anorexia.

Research shows that people with atypical anorexia experience many of the same health effects as someone with anorexia at a lower weight. This means that no matter your current weight, anorexia can impact your health in ways that require intensive care.

The DSM-5 lists two subtypes of anorexia nervosa:

  • Restricting type. People with this subtype of anorexia may restrict food and follow a rigid exercise schedule.
  • Binge-eating/purging type. People with this type of anorexia engage in cycles of binge eating and purging in addition to restricting foods.

A person with anorexia may experience malnutrition (and its effects) if their body doesn’t get the nutrients it needs to work properly. This can cause conditions that require medical care.

If you want to learn more about anorexia, here’s our anorexia FAQ page.

Anorexia symptoms can involve not only physical health, but emotional health too.

Below are some common symptoms and signs of anorexia. Symptoms can vary a lot, and most people will not have all of the following symptoms.

Physical symptoms and signs

  • irregular periods or loss of period
  • difficulty concentrating
  • abdominal pain or constipation
  • feeling cold
  • fatigue or muscle weakness
  • fainting or dizziness
  • sleep problems
  • dry skin or brittle nails
  • thinning or dry and brittle hair
  • soft downy hair on limbs
  • cold, mottled, or swollen hands or feet

Emotional and behavioral symptoms and signs

  • constant thoughts about food, weight, or body image
  • keeping a rigid exercise schedule
  • restricting certain food groups
  • feelings of depression, irritability, or anxiety
  • feeling “out of control”
  • feelings of isolation
  • tendency to eat alone rather than with family or loved ones
  • rituals or habits associated with mealtime
  • worry or avoidance of eating in public
  • cooking for others without eating

You can read more about symptoms of anorexia nervosa here.

According to the DSM-5, some diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa include:

  • restricting food in a way that causes weight loss and negatively affects health
  • strong fear of weight gain (even when more weight loss would increase the risk of medical conditions)
  • view of one’s body that’s different from how most others see it
  • self-esteem or sense of self that’s tied to whether there are good or bad feelings about one’s body
  • lack of recognition or denial of weight loss

Many people with an anorexia diagnosis also have one or more co-occurring mental health disorders. Research has found that people with anorexia may also have a mental health condition like:

People with anorexia may also have higher chances of being on the autism spectrum.

Wondering if you might meet the criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis? You can take this quiz to find out. While it isn’t a replacement for an actual diagnosis or medical help, it could help you decide if reaching out for support is a good next step.

There is no single cause of anorexia. Instead, it’s influenced by several different biological and environmental factors, like:

  • genetics
  • brain chemistry
  • family behaviors
  • beliefs about your appearance

These factors can make a person more likely to develop anorexia. It’s not uncommon for someone with anorexia to have a personal or family history of anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, some risk factors for anorexia include:

Biological risk factors

  • having a family member with an eating disorder
  • having a family member with a mental health condition
  • having a history of dieting
  • living with type 1 diabetes, as research suggests higher rates of eating disorders among people with Type 1 diabetes

Psychological risk factors

  • unhappiness with one’s body
  • perfectionism
  • having an anxiety disorder
  • preference for order

Social risk factors

  • having a history of being bullied
  • holding stigmatizing ideas about weight
  • isolation and loneliness
  • history of family or generational trauma

You can learn more about anorexia causes and risk factors here.

Living with anorexia can be hard for the person with the eating disorder and their loved ones. But you’re not alone. There are many treatment programs, resources, and support groups ready to help.

People with anorexia may get the most from treatment that covers all aspects of the disorder: physical, emotional, and mental.

Many people with anorexia also live with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health conditions.

Anorexia usually doesn’t go away on its own. And because of the health conditions it can cause, finding the right support during recovery can be key.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have also impacted how you or others are handling eating habits or an eating disorder. You can learn more about how some adults have been managing these changes here.

It’s not easy to watch someone you care about experience anorexia. But your love and concern can be pivotal in their life.

Many people recovering from anorexia say the support of family and friends played a key role in their getting well.

Here are some ways you can help your loved one with anorexia:

  • Learn about anorexia. Read books and articles, watch videos, or listen to podcasts. Learning to tell fact from fiction can help you offer the best support.
  • Before you approach them about their condition, prepare what you want to say. Some people find it helpful to write down notes.
  • Pick a good time and place to talk. Make sure it’s in a private area and at a convenient time so you won’t feel rushed.
  • Be patient and supportive. Fully listen to what they’re saying. Then you can explain why you’re concerned. Try to stick to the facts: “I noticed you haven’t been eating dinner with us lately.”
  • Avoid topics that may create negative experiences for your loved one. Don’t make ultimatums, comment on weight and appearance, shame or blame, or offer simple solutions like “just start eating” because anorexia is a complex disorder that requires proper medical care.
  • Help your loved one explore treatment options if they’re open to it. You can also offer to help them take the first steps, like setting up an appointment.

Anorexia treatment can be challenging. Sometimes a person with anorexia doesn’t recognize they have an eating disorder that’s impacting their well-being.

But when someone with anorexia does seek support — either on their own or with the help of a loved one — the right treatment can make a big difference.

Some of the first steps to treatment can include talking with a doctor or eating disorder specialist. After having a conversation with a healthcare professional, they can then suggest a treatment program or another approach that fits your needs.

Therapy

Therapy is one common treatment for anorexia. It can take place in an inpatient (overnight) or outpatient (having appointments but staying at home) setting.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular type of therapy for anorexia. CBT focuses on finding and transforming unhelpful thinking patterns, beliefs, and attitudes that affect behaviors tied to anorexia.

Family therapy is another common therapy for anorexia. It’s a home-based approach that focuses on the person and their family members. It can help family members learn how to support their loved one in recovery.

Medication

There are no specific medications for anorexia. Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants for co-occurring depression or another medication to treat any medical complications.

Residential treatment

Residential treatment could be a good option for people who don’t need intensive medical care but still need higher levels of support for anorexia.

This treatment involves around-the-clock care and medical monitoring. It can include:

  • group therapy
  • family therapy
  • one-on-one therapy
  • nutritional counseling
  • psychiatric counseling

Hospitalization

Hospitalization may be an option for people who need medical and mental healthcare for anorexia. If someone experiences the following, they may be hospitalized until their condition becomes more stable:

  • unstable vital signs
  • lab results that point to a serious medical condition
  • suicidality, an all-encompassing term for thoughts of suicide, suicide planning, and suicide attempts

You can read more about anorexia treatment here.

Reaching out for support can be a form of self-love. Even if you’re working with a healthcare professional, self-care can support the recovery process.

Some ways to care for yourself as you recover include:

  • Talking with people you trust. Connecting with a supportive loved one may help with feeling heard and encouraged.
  • Reconsidering boundaries. Some find certain activities or relationships bring back bad memories of anorexia, making it harder to heal. Creating mindful boundaries around these things could help.
  • Joining a support group. You can find many online support groups for anorexia. It can be therapeutic to hear others’ stories and share your own.

Anorexia is an eating disorder that involves both mind and body. For people with anorexia, treatment can have a huge impact on physical and emotional well-being.

Many treatment options are out there for anorexia that have helped a lot of people recover. Seeking out social support and learning more about anorexia can also help.

Living with anorexia can be an isolating experience, but you don’t have to manage it alone.