Anorexia nervosa is more than just starving the body of food, a desire to be thin, and a trending hashtag on social media. Anorexia nervosa is a deadly eating disorder that affects up to 4% of individuals in the United States and is the most fatal mental health disorder with suicide as the number one cause of death. Overcoming anorexia is one of the toughest challenges an individual can overcome, and it often takes years of professional treatment, an incredible support team, a couple of relapses, and an enormous amount of self-growth.
Anorexia is not a dieting choice but rather a severe disease: Individuals who are diagnosed with anorexia nervosa did not choose this path but instead have many deep underlying triggers that caused them to develop an unhealthy relationship with food and control. Although individuals who engage in dieting have a higher likelihood of developing an eating disorder, dieting is not the single cause of anorexia nervosa. In the majority of cases, anorexia nervosa is the individual’s primary way of coping with intense emotions and difficult personal events.
Malnutrition and caloric deficiency seen in anorexia nervosa will result in hair loss, broken nails and dry, cracked skin.
Not all individuals with anorexia starve themselves. There are two subtypes of anorexia; restrictive and binging and purging. The restrictive subtype is characterized by depriving the body of calories through starvation or excessive exercise. The binging and purging subtype is characterized by compensatory purging behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or laxative abuse after consuming a meal. Individuals with anorexia nervosa who display binging and/or purging behaviors will have long-term weight suppression as part of their illness.
The main difference between bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa is long-term weight suppression. Both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can be characterized by binging and pinging; however long-term weight suppression and the inability to maintain a healthy weight are the characteristics that are specific to anorexia nervosa.
One of the most significant risk factors for anorexia nervosa (50%-80%) is genetic.
Individuals with anorexia nervosa must seek professional treatment. Effective treatment is tailored to the individual and not the disorder. It is often recommended that a multidisciplinary team, which may consist of a therapist (psychologist, counselor, or social worker), dietician, psychiatrist and/or primary care physician is responsible for providing the care that is needed. Treating anorexia nervosa does take a village.
Individuals with anorexia nervosa are very good at hiding their disorder. Individuals living with anorexia nervosa tend to keep their condition very private. They will go to extreme lengths to pretend they are eating when in reality; they are starving their bodies. There may also be no visible signs of the damage occurring within their body as malnutrition takes its toll.