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What is Anorexia Nervosa?

By G. Wiesen
Updated Feb 26, 2024
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Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which a person typically has an overly negative view of himself or herself and as a result refuses to ingest enough food to remain healthy. The way in which food intake is avoided can vary among individuals afflicted with this disorder, though the results are typically a number of potential medical issues. This is primarily a psychological disorder, though there are physical aspects to the illness and certain physiological conditions can mimic this disorder. Anorexia nervosa has been diagnosed as a disorder for centuries and is usually treated with a combination of behavioral therapies and lifestyle changes.

Often simply called anorexia, anorexia nervosa was first named by Sir William Gull, an English physician to Queen Victoria. In general, the disorder is categorized by a general refusal to ingest food or nutrition, or by an effort to purge the body of food after eating. These actions are usually caused by an excessively negative self-image, leading someone to believe that he or she is overweight regardless of his or her actual weight. This lack of nutrition due to anorexia nervosa continues even though a person is at or below a healthy weight.

Many people think of anorexia nervosa as a refusal to eat, and this is a common form of the illness, though binging and purging can also be evidence of this disorder. The lack of nutrition and the physical toll a person can take on himself or herself through purging often leads to numerous medical consequences for this illness. These can include everything from tooth loss due to repeated vomiting to brain atrophy and skin discoloration due to malnutrition.

Someone with anorexia nervosa will often refuse to eat, obsess about food or eating and establish rituals while eating such as cutting food into equally sized small pieces. He or she might also cook large meals for others but not eat or eat small amounts and then quickly purge afterward. Women are the most common sufferers of this disorder, with about 90% of cases afflicting women, and 40% of those involving adolescent women between 15 and 19 years of age.

Treatment for anorexia nervosa can be quite successful, and this is typically not a chronic illness. Most cases last less than two years and while relapse is possible, even after relapse the illness is often overcome. Psychological treatment such as behavioral modification is common for this illness, as well as medical treatments to return a person to a healthy weight and ensure proper nutrition. Someone suffering from anorexia nervosa is typically helped to view himself or herself more appropriately and to overcome the root causes of his or her negative body image.

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