Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder in which a person severely limits the amount of food he or she eats to prevent weight gain or lose weight.

What is Anorexia?

An eating disorder is a mental health illness that causes unhealthy eating behaviors.

Anorexia nervosa is one type of eating disorder in which a person severely limits the amount of food he or she eats to prevent weight gain or lose weight. Many people with anorexia have a fear of gaining weight or believe they are obese (overweight) even when they are not.

Though anorexia is more common in teenage girls and women in their early 20s, all young people are at risk – even young children.

Anorexia causes serious health problems and has the highest mortality rate of any other mental health illness and a high suicide rate. Therefore, it is important to take any warning signs or symptoms of the disorder seriously.

What Are The Signs & Symptoms?

If a child is limiting the amount and types of food he or she eats and is losing weight or not gaining weight appropriately, it could be due to anorexia.

A child with anorexia may:

  • Talk about weight, dieting and food a lot.
  • Refuse food or refuse to eat in front of others.
  • Have a distorted body image and low self-esteem.
  • Exercise excessively.
  • Withdraw from friends and social activities.
  • Purge food by vomiting or taking laxatives.
  • Be sad or anxious.

Other signs and symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Feeling cold all the time
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Dizziness and weakness
  • Dry and yellow skin
  • Growth of fine hair all over the body
  • Constipation

Not all children with anorexia are underweight. A child struggling with anorexia could appear to be at a healthy weight and still have the disorder – called atypical anorexia.

What Causes Anorexia?

Researchers are still studying the causes of anorexia and other eating disorders. It is currently thought that eating disorders might be caused by a combination of biological, genetic, psychological and social factors.

How is Anorexia Diagnosed?

To diagnose anorexia, doctors first evaluate the child’s symptoms and medical history. This requires asking the child and parent questions about eating behaviors and other related topics.

Doctors also conduct a physical exam and blood and urine tests to make sure another condition isn’t causing the child’s symptoms. In some cases, additional tests are done to check for complications related to anorexia.

How is Anorexia Nervosa Treated?

Proper treatment for anorexia requires professional help from a multidisciplinary team of specialists. Parents must also educate themselves and play an active role in the treatment process.

Treatment may include:

  • Nutrition therapy. A dietitian creates an eating plan to help the child gain weight and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Counseling. A therapist or psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders talks to the child about his or her thoughts and feelings in an effort to change the child’s behavior. Counseling may be conducted with the child’s parent present or individually.
  • Medicine. A psychiatrist may prescribe an antidepressant if the child is also diagnosed with depression or anxiety.
  • Hospitalization. Severe complications of anorexia may require hospitalization.

Recovery from an eating disorder takes time and full support from loved ones. Relapse is possible. But with love and thoughtful guidance from parents, a child can recover.

Are There Any Complications Associated With Anorexia?

Because our bodies need food to function normally, anorexia can lead to health complications over time. Potential complications include:

  • Loss of menstrual period (amenorrhea) and infertility in girls
  • Anemia
  • Bone loss or weakened bones
  • Weakened immune system
  • Neurological problems
  • Heart failure

If left untreated, malnourishment from anorexia can lead to death. The mental and emotional factors related to anorexia can also lead to suicide.

When Should You Seek Help For Your Child?

It’s easier to treat anorexia before it causes severe health problems. Don’t ignore the signs and symptoms.

If your child is restricting food and is obsessed with losing weight or afraid of gaining weight, make an appointment with your family doctor or pediatrician to discuss your concerns.