Eating Disorder Awareness: Anorexia Nervosa

It’s no secret that eating disorders are a real and pressing problem for today’s teenagers.  According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), there are more than 24 million Americans with eating disorders and only 1 out of every 10 of those people will receive any treatment.  ANAD indicates that more than 80% of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, begin in adolescence.   Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness amongst adolescents and it carries a mortality rate twelve times that of any other cause of death for females between 15 and 35.

When you consider the life-long consequences and life threatening danger faced by people with anorexia nervosa, it is clear to see that early detection is critical.  Whether you are a parent, a teacher, a coach, a best friend, or a boyfriend, it is more important than ever for everyone to know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of anorexia.  Understanding what to look for and knowing what to do could help save the life of someone you love.

What Anorexia Nervosa Looks Like

Everyone has seen pictures of people with the tell-tale emaciation that can be caused by anorexia nervosa.  But there are many other signs that someone in your life has this eating disorder that are less overt.

  • Food consumption and weight management become an obsession.  This is not your teenage daughter complaining that she looks fat today.  This is an all encompassing obsession with how much food they eat and how many calories and fat grams each bite of food they take contains that can take over their life.
  • Food consumption decreases to starvation levels.  People with anorexia nervosa may stop eating around other people, start making plans that result in them missing regular mealtimes, and use extreme portion control to limit their caloric intake.
  • Irregular growth and loss of hair.  While it may seem strange to have both excess growth and abnormal loss, both can be seen in someone with anorexia nervosa.  Lack of nutrition can cause hair to become brittle and fall out while lack of body fat can signal the body to grow more hair in an attempt to regulate body hair.  This abnormal growth appears as a fine layer of hair on the face and body.
  • Overuse and abuse of laxatives, diuretics, and diet pills.
  • Consistently low body weight paired with a refusal to maintain a normal weight.  This is an important distinction as some people who do not have an eating disorder may be perpetually below their ideal body weight.  But someone who has a body weight more than 15% below their ideal weight who also refuses to gain enough to maintain a normal weight may be anorexic.

The Real Dangers of Being Anorexic

Anorexia nervosa takes an immediate toll on the body that results in abnormal weight loss and nutritional deficiencies.  But it also causes other problems that can take longer to be seen and may have life-long impacts.  It creates a type of mental fog that makes it difficult to concentrate and regulate mood fluctuations.  It causes irregularities in the cardiovascular system including slow, uneven pulse rates, low blood pressure, shortness of breath, and dizziness.  It also impacts the musculoskeletal system and can lead to stunted growth rates, an increase in bone fractures, and osteoporosis.  It can result in abnormalities in thyroid function that cause fatigue, hair loss, and low body temperature.  It can lead to dependence on laxatives or other pharmaceuticals that result in life-threatening conditions like electrolyte imbalances and dehydration.  Overall lack of specific nutrients like potassium can also be immediately life threatening.

How You Can Help

The best way to help someone with an eating disorder is to be there for them and provide the support they need to regain their health throughout the various stages of recovery.  That starts with speaking up when you have concerns and following through until you are no longer concerned or the person in your life gets the help they need.  We at Doorways have trained counselors to treat teens and adolescents struggling with eating disorders such as Anorexia.

It is a common misconception that it takes years to die from anorexia nervosa.  If you are concerned about someone in your life, don’t wait; they may have less time than you think.


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