Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is an eating disorder that can affect people of all ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, and genders. AN is believed to be linked to genetic predisposition and can be caused by multiple factors, including environmental, social, and cultural factors.
When a person has AN, they restrict their food intake such that they are not able to maintain a healthy weight or, for kids, they are not growing at the expected pace for their age. Medical complications of AN can be wide-ranging and can affect every organ in the body. Quick weight loss over a short period of time can occur for people with AN and can put people at even greater risk for medical complications. It is important to have a medical evaluation prior to starting outpatient treatment.
People with AN also fear weight gain or becoming overweight, even when underweight. They often struggle with a preoccupation with body shape, certain body parts, or their body weight to the point that body image takes on a major role in determining their self-worth. A frequent experience of people with AN is that they have difficulty seeing the grave negative impact on their mental and physical health, making it difficult at times to want to seek treatment.
There are two types of Anorexia Nervosa. In the Restricting subtype, people restrict their food intake through limiting calories, food groups, or amounts. In the Binge/Purge subtype, people restrict their eating but also experience binge eating (eating a large amount of food while feeling a loss of control) and purging through self-induced vomiting, or misuse of laxatives or diuretics.
One hard-to-recognize form of AN is when a person naturally has a larger body or a heavier body mass and loses weight to the point where others perceive them as reaching a “normal” or “healthier” weight. However, their body is truly healthiest at a higher weight. For instance, if a child has always grown up in the 90th percentile for weight and then loses weight to be in the 50th percentile, some people might believe that this is a good place for their weight. However, if their body is naturally healthiest at this higher weight percentile, being at the 50th percentile (which in this case would be misidentified as “average” weight) would be unhealthy and potentially dangerous for that child. Currently, this would not be called AN, but instead Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). However, it can be just as life-threatening and functionally impairing as AN and should be treated appropriately.
It is possible to recover from AN, especially with help from a specially trained team of practitioners.