Eating disorders

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder and mental health condition where the person will severely limit or ‘restrict’ the amount of food they have, for long periods of time. It can be different from person to person but people with anorexia nervosa may:  

• Skip meals 
• Eat a lot less overall 
• Stop eating certain types of foods 
• Do unhealthy amounts of exercise 
• Vomit or use laxatives to ‘purge’ or remove food they have eaten from their body quickly

Although the most obvious symptom is severe weight loss, anorexia nervosa does not necessarily develop because the individual wants to lose weight. It is a complex mental health problem, linked to: 

• Low self-esteem (when a person has a negative view of themselves) 
• Negative thoughts  
• Difficulty with coping with life 
It is difficult to know how many people are affected by anorexia nervosa, but it’s thought that 1 in 150 fifteen year old girls have this eating disorder and 1 in 1000 fifteen year old boys (Royal College of Psychiatrists August 2014). It is often thought of as something that starts in the teenage years but it can also start in childhood or later life. 9 in 1000 women will experience anorexia nervosa at some point in their lives (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence - NICE October 2014). It affects women more than men (ratio 10:1). However, men are more likely to be underdiagnosed, misdiagnosed and under-referred and they are more likely to develop their disorder in association with over-exercise and to want to be of a muscular build rather than a very skinny one (Royal College of Psychiatrists August 2015). 
 
Restricting food had often started out as a form of dieting for the young people we spoke with. They may have been on a “healthy eating kick” or skipping a meal here or there. It was common for people to say that their eating disorder had developed gradually, over months or years. It was often difficult to know when exactly the disorder had started. Gradually, people developed “fear foods” and started cutting out whole food groups. Some developed obsessions around food and eating, such as calorie-counting or weighing themselves repeatedly. 
 
Some took restricting further and would then start to limit their experience of fun or pleasure in life, becoming more isolated, focusing more on work and less on hobbies or seeing friends. Physical symptoms (such as weight loss, extreme tiredness, digestive problems, poor blood circulation, hair loss) often went hand in hand with increasing bad moods, perfectionist thinking, self-criticism and anxiety.
 
Many described restricting as the only form of control they could have over their lives, something that was just theirs and that they could be “good at”.  Anorexia Nervosa was a continuous cycle; the more weight that was lost, the less ill people felt and the less able they were to get help. This drove people to restrict even more and the cycle continued. People often said that stopping this way of thinking eventually helped them to get better and enabled them to “let go” of the eating disorder.
Different aspects of the experience of anorexia nervosa have been covered across this website. 

Last reviewed October 2018.
Last updated October 2018.

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