Eating disorders include anorexia
Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia nervosa and other binge eating disorders. Eating disorders can affect people of all ages and genders, and can have serious psychological and physical consequences.
Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. They can affect people of all age groups, genders, backgrounds, cultures, and in different body sizes. The number of people with eating disorders is increasing. Eating disorders are estimated to affect almost one million Australians. Some groups in the community are at greater risk, including females, children, and gender and sexually diverse people.
We understand more about eating disorders now than ever before. Yet, many people can live with an eating disorder for a long time without being diagnosed or accessing treatment. Seeking support from a professional as early as possible can help people to recover more quickly and reduce the impact of the eating disorder on the person’s health and wellbeing.
What is anorexia nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is a psychological illness that has serious physical, emotional and social consequences.
People who develop anorexia nervosa:
commonly have an unhealthy focus on food, weight or body shape, leading to significant weight loss and malnourishment
can severely restrict their diet or food intake and may exercise compulsively
may also engage in binge eating
have an intense fear of gaining weight, even though they may be significantly underweight
can experience atypical anorexia nervosa, where they have significant weight loss and other symptoms but are not considered underweight.
Anorexia nervosa can be experienced by people of all genders and all ages, including children. It commonly begins in adolescence.
Professions or activities that emphasise particular body sizes and shapes are at increased risk of developing an eating disorder (for example elite sports, modelling).
Recognising the signs early and getting help can reduce the impact of anorexia nervosa and support a faster and full recovery. It is possible to recover from this eating disorder with the right support, even if you have been living with it for many years.
What causes anorexia nervosa?
The causes of anorexia nervosa are complex and differ from person to person. There is no single cause of an eating disorder.
Risk factors for the development or re-emergence of the condition may include:
biological – some people may have a genetic predisposition to developing an eating disorder
sociocultural messages that emphasise a particular ‘ideal’ body size or shape
dieting – this is a significant risk factor for the development of an eating disorder
changes in life circumstances or significant life transitions such as school, work, pregnancy and parenthood
social isolation, relationship difficulties
anxiety or depression
traits such as perfectionism, obsessive thinking
Symptoms of anorexia nervosa
An awareness of the signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa can help early detection and treatment. Treatment is more effective if it begins early, but you can start recovery at any stage of an eating disorder.
Physical symptoms of anorexia nervosa
Physical signs and symptoms may include:
considerable weight loss, in a short period of time
body weight that is not in the healthy range for the person’s age and height
development of bloating, constipation and food intolerance
for women, loss of periods or failure to begin a menstrual cycle – although you can still have your periods and experience anorexia nervosa
loss of libido (sex drive)
feeling tired or not sleeping well
cold, mottled hands and feet due to poor blood flow, intolerance to the cold
muscle loss or weakness
heart problems, poor circulation, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, low iron levels
dehydration, kidney failure
fainting, dizziness without reason (such as another medical condition)
dry skin, brittle nails, thin hair
loss of bone calcium, osteoporosis
an increase in dental decay
fine hair appearing on the face and body.
Psychological symptoms of anorexia nervosa
Psychological signs and symptoms may include:
fear of gaining weight or ongoing behaviour that prevents weight gain
preoccupation with food, calories, exercising
rules about dieting, body shape and weight
irritability around meal times
depression and anxiety
slowed thinking and decreased ability to concentrate
body dissatisfaction or distorted body image (for example, perceiving that they are in a much larger body than they are)
low self-esteem or expressions of low self-worth.
Behavioural symptoms of anorexia nervosa
Behavioural signs and symptoms may include:
dieting behaviour – dieting, counting kilojoules, reporting new food allergies and avoiding food groups that were once enjoyed
binge eating (or reporting experiences of having ‘binged’ on what would be considered a normal portion size of food)
misusing laxatives, appetite suppressants, diuretics and enemas
behaviour related to body image – constantly checking body in the mirror, pinching parts of the body to measure fat
withdrawal from social interactions, recreational activities and interests
secrecy around eating – saying they have eaten when they haven’t
excessive and compulsive exercise even when sick or injured, or exhibiting distress if they can’t exercise
obsessive rituals around food – cutting food into very small pieces or eating very slowly
self-harm, use of substances and suicide attempts.
Diagnosis of anorexia nervosa
If you think you (or someone you know) might have anorexia nervosa, it is important that you see your doctor as soon as possible. The health risks associated with anorexia nervosa are severe and can be life threatening. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you can start to recover, and the more effective treatment can be.
Other healthcare professionals, such as dieticians, psychologists or psychiatrists, can recognise an eating disorder, but may not be able to give you a full physical health check-up. This is why seeing your GP (doctor) is important.
To diagnose anorexia nervosa, a GP:
will need to do a full physical examination
may complete blood tests
may ask questions about your health, including your emotional health and wellbeing, medical history and current lifestyle.
Eating disorder symptoms can sometimes be explained by another medical condition or physical illness Your doctor will need to make sure that you are not losing weight or experiencing other symptoms because of another medical reason.
Types of anorexia nervosa
There are two types of anorexia nervosa:
Restriction of food intake – emphasises the restriction of food intake.
Binge eating and purging – includes engaging in periods of binge eating, followed by compensatory behaviours such as self-induced vomiting, overexercising, or use of laxatives, diuretics or enemas.
Restriction of food intake
People with the ‘restricting’ subtype of anorexia nervosa tend to severely reduce their energy intake or restrict the type of food they will eat. The signs can be different in each person, but may include:
restricting certain types of food, such as carbohydrates or high-fat foods
obsessively counting kilojoule intake
Binge eating and purging
People with the ‘binge eating and purging’ subtype of anorexia nervosa have similar symptoms to the restricting type, but also engage in behaviours that include:
Binge eating – eating subjectively large quantities of food in a short period of time and feeling distressed and a sense of a loss of control.
Compensatory behaviours – such as self-induced vomiting or using laxatives, enemas or diuretics.
This type of anorexia nervosa shares some similarities to bulimia nervosa. People with anorexia nervosa, however, tend to strongly emphasise weight control by restricting energy intake, rather than primarily through purging behaviours.
In addition, people with this type of anorexia nervosa have a lower body weight; whereas people with bulimia nervosa may experience a fluctuating body weight closer to the healthy weight range for their age and height.
Long-term risks of ongoing anorexia nervosa
Untreated and ongoing anorexia nervosa can cause problems including:
weakened bones (osteoporosis)
slowed growth (in young people)
problems with concentration and thinking
problems with decision-making
social, emotional and educational problems.
Add a comment