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Anorexia Nervosa is a dangerous eating disorder characterized by inadequate food intake, which results in excessive weight loss, malnutrition and a number of potentially life-threatening medical conditions.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, up to 95 percent of people who have anorexia nervosa are female. Anorexia typically occurs during adolescence, and the longer it’s left untreated, the worse the long-term prognosis. Anorexia nervosa is one of the most dangerous mental health conditions, with up to 20 percent of cases resulting in death.

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia

According to the American Psychological Association, the underlying issue behind anorexia is a distorted body image that causes a person to believe they are overweight, even if they are dangerously thin. This can lead to refusing to eat, engaging compulsively in exercise and losing extreme amounts of weight as a result.

Someone who has anorexia will likely have an intense fear of gaining weight and an obsession with behaviors that prevent weight gain. Chances are, he or she won’t believe these behaviors—or their malnourished appearance—are a problem, but rather simply a lifestyle choice.

Warning signs that you or someone you love may have anorexia nervosa include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • An obsession with dieting
  • Refusing to eat certain foods, such as carbohydrates or anything with sugar
  • Making frequent comments about being “fat”
  • Denial of hunger
  • Rituals surrounding eating, such as eating food in a particular order or chewing excessively
  • Making excuses to avoid eating
  • Exercising excessively to burn calories
  • Withdrawing from family, friends and hobbies

Health Effects of Anorexia

Anorexia is self-starvation. Without the essential nutrients it needs to function, your body will conserve energy by slowing down all of its processes. This can lead to serious medical complications, including an abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure, which can cause heart failure; a reduction in bone density, leading to osteoporosis; muscle loss, resulting in extreme weakness; and severe dehydration that can cause kidney failure.

Treating Anorexia

A high-quality residential or outpatient treatment program that specializes in eating disorders is essential for receiving the most effective, research-based treatments for anorexia. Treatment typically involves a collaborative, multi-pronged approach utilizing a team of medical providers, mental health professionals and dietitians.

Medical professionals will monitor any complications caused by anorexia, such as heart rhythm disturbances and electrolyte imbalances, while mental health professionals will facilitate psychotherapy, or talk therapy, which is essential for addressing self-destructive beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that underlie the condition. Therapy helps patients develop strategies to make meaningful behavioral changes that help them return to a healthy weight.

Comprehensive nutrition education and individualized meal plans provided by a dietitian help patients return to regular eating patterns that meet appropriate calorie and nutritional requirements.

If another mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, co-occurs with the anorexia diagnosis, medications may be used in addition to therapy to help control the symptoms of these conditions that can affect thought patterns and reinforce unhealthy behaviors. Getting treatment for both the anorexia and any existing mental illness is essential for improving the chances of successful recovery.

Treatment Can Restore Physical and Mental Health

If you or someone you love suffers from anorexia, a high-quality treatment program specializing in eating disorders is absolutely essential for recovery. Through addressing false beliefs, developing a healthy relationship with food as fuel and working to improve your self-esteem and body image, recovery is possible and will help restore good physical and mental health and lead to an exponentially higher quality of life.

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All About Eating Disorders, Part 1: Anorexia
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