Probably the best-known eating disorder, anorexia nervosa is characterised by self starvation and an obsessive desire to lose weight. Anorexia is not a ‘slimmer's illness’. Like all eating disorders, it is a serious health problem with underlying psychological difficulties and physical consequences.
In this article, beat, the national support organisation for people with eating disorders, provides an introduction to the warning signs and effects of anorexia. See the beat website for more advice and details about your local support services.
What is Anorexia?
It has been estimated that between 1-2% of young adult women suffer from anorexia*. Sufferers were often compliant and obedient as children - eager to please and more likely to hide their inner feelings and anxieties. As young adults, they may fear failure and impose high standards on themselves – in school, sport or music.
For a person with anorexia, food becomes a way to control and cope with life. Ultimately however, the disorder itself takes control and chemical changes can distort the mind, making it almost impossible for the suffererer to make rational decisions about food.
Behavioural signs of anorexia
- Rigid or obsessional behaviour attached to eating, such as cutting food into tiny pieces
- Mood swings
- Restlessness and hyperactivity
- Wearing big baggy clothes
- Vomiting; taking laxatives
- Excessive exercise
- Psychological signs of anorexia
- Intense fear of gaining weight and obsessive interest in what others are eating
- Distorted perception of body shape or weight
- Denial of the existence of a problem
- Changes in personality and mood swings
- Becoming aware of an ‘inner voice’ that challenges views on eating and exercise
The effects of anorexia on the body
- In adults, extreme weight loss; in children and teenagers, poor or inadequate weight gain in relation to their growth or substantial weight loss
- Constipation and abdominal pains
- Dizzy spells and feeling faint
- Bloated stomach, puffy face and ankles
- Downy hair on the body; occasionally loss of hair on the head when recovering
- Poor blood circulation and feeling cold
- Dry, rough, or discoloured skin
- Loss of periods
- Loss of bone mass and eventually osteoporosis (brittle bones)
The long-term effects of anorexia
The long-term effects of anorexia on the body and mind can be alarming and severe. Women with anorexia may become infertile in the long term and there is a high likelihood of developing osteoporosis. Fortunately, many of these effects can be reduced - once the body receives proper and regular nourishment.
Recovery from anorexia is not easy but it is certainly achievable, even after many years of illness. However, recovery will only be successful if the sufferer wants to change. Family, friends and professional health workers can only help by supporting, caring and providing the necessary guidance. People with eating disorders often have mixed feelings about ‘giving up’ their illness, because their eating habits have become established as a way of coping with their emotional difficulties.
For most people, their first step is visit a local GP. Depending on the severity of the eating disorder, the sufferer may be offered a course of counselling, dietary counselling or advice, or referral to a specialist for further assessment. This may in turn lead to an offer of day-patient or outpatient treatment or, where the disorder is more serious, inpatient treatment. They may also need treatment for any medical condition which has resulted from the eating disorder, or is associated with it.