Anorexia Nervosa

People with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) restrict their food intake to the point of being underweight and experience distressing concerns about their shape and weight, particularly a fear of becoming fat. Those suffering from AN may also feel driven to exercise for hours a day and use other extreme measures such as laxatives, diuretics, or self-induced vomiting in their attempts to lose weight or maintain low body weight. Women with AN cease menstruating, and underweight individuals in general have trouble concentrating, experience low body temperature, and may become covered with fine body hair to help retain heat. AN is often accompanied by depressed mood, social withdrawal, irritability, and insomnia.

Full-syndrome AN affects about 1 in 100 adolescent girls and young women, although it is extremely common for college-age women to experience one or more of the distressing symptoms of AN. Women are affected by AN in larger numbers than men, although men are increasingly diagnosed with AN as well. The male-to-female ratio is estimated at 1:10.

AN is typically extremely disabling and has serious medical consequences. Health consequences can include damage to the heart, osteoporosis, kidney damage, and death. AN is one of the most frequently fatal mental health issues affecting young women. It is extremely important for those suffering from AN to receive treatment; prompt treatment can be very effective in reversing the disorder.

Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

  • Resistance to maintaining body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height.
  • Intense fear of weight gain or being “fat” even though underweight.
  • Disturbance in the experience of body weight or shape, undue influence of weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of low body weight.
  • Loss of menstrual periods in girls and women post-puberty.

Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa

One of the most problematic aspects of AN is that people suffering from the disorder are more afraid of becoming fat than the illness itself. Like some other mental health problems, the person most hurt often does not believe she or he has a problem at all. For these reasons, friends and families of people with AN often notice the problem before the affected individual. Warning signs include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, and dieting
  • Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (e.g. no carbohydrates, etc.)
  • Frequent comments about feeling “fat” or overweight despite weight loss
  • Anxiety about gaining weight or being “fat.”
  • Denial of hunger
  • Development of food rituals (e.g. eating foods in certain orders, excessive chewing, rearranging food on a plate)
  • Consistent excuses to avoid mealtimes or situations involving food
  • Excessive, rigid exercise regimen–despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury–the need to “burn off” calories taken in
  • Withdrawal from usual friends and activities
  • In general, behaviors and attitudes indicating that weight loss, dieting, and control of food are becoming primary concerns

If these symptoms seem relevant to you, we can help. Feel free to contact us by calling our main desk at (617) 353-9610, or by emailing Bonnie Brown, our nurse administrator, at bonnieb@bu.edu. Also, if you qualify for one of our ongoing research studies, you may be eligible to receive free treatment as a part of our current research opportunities.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fourth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. National Eating Disorder Association Website