Anorexia nervosa is the best-known of the three most common eating disorders, but what many people do not know is that the disorder usually starts long before the person exhibits the gaunt, emaciated look that is associated with it.
What Is Anorexia?
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by extreme food restriction due to a seriously distorted body image. The anorexic can look at herself in the mirror and see a "fat" person even when she's clearly skin and bones. Anorexics are pathologically terrified of gaining weight, even if that weight gain would bring them to the accepted minimum standard of weight for their age, body type, and activity level. Anorexia affects every bodily system because the person is literally starving to death. Anorexics will, as the disorder progresses, stop menstruating, begin losing hair, develop brittle nails, and begin to suffer from chronic fatigue. Damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, and bones is quite common, and can lead to life-threatening health problems.
What Causes It?
Many things lead to the development of this disorder in young people. It's typically not about weight, but rather self-esteem and control. Because the prevalent culture celebrates extreme thinness as beauty, many young people develop distorted ideas about what is attractive, and when normal eating patterns do not allow them to achieve that look, they resort to self-starvation. Anorexia may begin as an attempt to reduce by a person who is feeling overwhelmed by a stressful life situation, or who feels helpless in the face of some serious stressor. Sometimes, the person has been on a diet, which then short-circuits into the eating disorder when the person experiences the feelings of control and the gratification that losing weight can bring.
What Are the Symptoms?
Many people wonder how they can tell if someone they care about has anorexia. Some of the tell-tale signs include:
- Skipping meals or eating abnormally small portions
- Refusing to eat in front of others
- Obsessing over the calorie counts of foods and eats only foods considered "safe"
- Developing abnormal eating "rituals", such as excessive chewing or taking extremely small bites
- Making excuses to avoid meals -- these excuses usually sound rational, but they are signs of avoidant behaviour
- Finding former favourite foods "gross" or "disgusting"
- Complaining of being "fat" when it's obvious to others that she is preternaturally thin
- Denies an eating problem and quarrels with those who try to help or confront the abnormal behaviour
- Social withdrawal
Not Just Girls
While the typical view of anorexics is a teenage girl who is skeletally thin and refuses to eat, the fact is that males can develop the disorder too. Studies indicate that one-tenth of adult anorexics are male, while fully one-third of adolescent anorexics are male. Usually, these males are involved in an activity that mandates certain weight-levels. Another common factor of acquiring the disorder is boys who were overweight as children and were teased or mistreated because of their weight. Many men who suffer from eating disorders suffer from the same unrealistic body image expectations as female victims, spurred by the media's obsession with the lean, muscular male physique that does not reflect normal male appearance.
How Is Anorexia Treated?
Most anorexics will require hospitalization or in-patient therapy until they have reached at least 85 percent of their ideal body weight. Psychotherapy, family and individual counseling, medical intervention, and nutrition counseling will be necessary to help the anorexic deal with his distorted body image and obsession with food. Drug therapy has not been notably helpful in addressing this disorder, although some drugs may be prescribed to combat depression and other psychological symptoms.