What is anorexia nervosa?
Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental illness that pervades all aspects of an individual’s life and has profound physical and psychological effects on them, and on those around them. The illness is much more common in young women, though recent studies have identified much higher rates of anorexia in men than previously thought. Anorexia is a highly visible disorder and evokes intense emotional response from others, particularly from those closest to the individual who is ill.
People with anorexia nervosa deliberately keep themselves at a weight far below that considered to be healthy for their height and age by restricting their food intake. Some individuals also exercise excessively or “purge” after eating to control their weight even further.
People with anorexia feel fat even when they look emaciated. They have an intense fear of gaining weight despite being drastically underweight: losing weight or maintaining an abnormally low weight becomes a way of life and they will take extreme measures to avoid increasing their weight. They minimise or deny the seriousness of low body weight and the effects of starvation. They have distorted thinking patterns, and feelings of being defective and worthless – this affects not only their eating, but all parts of their life, including relationships, family life, work and leisure.
People with anorexia don’t “just grow out of it”. When the illness takes hold, they are often in such a deep state of denial about the amount of weight loss and its physical and psychological consequences, and are so afraid of gaining even the smallest amount of weight, that they are terrified of seeking treatment. They value their undernourished state and are reluctant to contemplate change. However, left untreated, anorexia can continue to dominate the life of an individual indefinitely, and in around 10 to 20 per cent of cases, it is fatal. There is also a relatively high rate of suicide among people with anorexia.
There are two types of anorexia:
A restricting type (person does not engage in binge-eating or purging behaviour, e. g. self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas)
A binge-eating type or purging type (person engages in binge-eating or purging behaviour, e. g. self-induced vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics or enemas)