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What is Anorexia?

Believe it or not, it isn't all about food


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health


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Anorexia means many different things to different people. You may know someone who has had it, or you may have read about it in a magazine. But what is it really and how can you look out for the symptoms of it?

Anorexia: The Facts

  • Anorexia Nervosa (that's what the experts call it) is an eating disorder that causes you to aim for and maintain a body weight that's lower than what's normal/healthy for your age, sex and height.
  • The word anorexia literally means loss of appetite but that's not necessarily what happens to someone who has it. In fact, their appetite is just supressed while they develop a really intense interest in food.
  • The eating disorder can strike at any stage in life and it affects both men and women. It's more common among young girls and women but at least 10% of people with anorexia are male.

What causes it?

In general, it's really difficult to pinpoint a single cause that can explain why someone develops an eating disorder and when it comes to anorexia the story is much the same. It's thought that a number of things, including psychological and physical factors, can trigger it.

Someone might develop anorexia in response to an upset in their lives. Perhaps they've gone through a really traumatic experience, a major change, been bullied, lost someone, become overly stressed or had critical comments made about their weight or shape. Sometimes it's harder to explain because the triggers aren't as obvious.

People who are overly concerned with what others think, and worry about meeting their standards or expectations, can be more likely to develop an eating disorder. Those feelings of low self-worth and vulnerability are commong among young people and this may explain why eating disorders affect so many people during adolescence.

What symptoms should I look out for?

Well, the first thing you should be aware of is a desire to achieve and maintain a body weight that's lower than what's normal/healthy for you. That's at the heart of the disorder and leads to two types of symptoms: Physical and pyschologial.

Physical Symptoms

  • You'll be overly active and spend more time than you should exercising. Some might describe your exercise regime as excessive.
  • Feeling the cold more easily than others? Put that down to poor circulation.
  • Your tummy is bloated and retaining fluid. You might also have constipation and abdominal pain.
  • Settling yourself down is difficult and you're very tired because you can't sleep.
  • Your hair is dry and thinning while your skin is dry and off colour.
  • Noticed any fine, downy hair growing on your face and body? That's just your system trying to keep warm.
  • Women and girls can lose their periods because the hormones have been totally thrown off kilter.
  • Your interest in sex has totally disappeared.

Psychological Symptoms

  • You'll have low self-esteem.
  • You'll be irritable and have mood swings.
  • Change will be difficult to cope with and you might have difficulty dealing with conflict or frustration.
  • You might withdraw from friends and family and end up socially isolated.
  • When it comes to thinking about life everything will be in black and white/right and wrong terms. You just can't see a middle ground.
  • Depression may set in and you might develop obsessive and/or compulsive behaviour.

It's also important to note that some symptoms can be associated with food. Keep an eye out for:

  • Rigid, limited diet, and frequent weighing.
  • Excessive thinking and talking about food and related issues.
  • Lying about food intake, claiming to have already eaten or to have plans to eat elsewhere.
  • Chasing food around the plate, taking a long time over meals.
  • Cooking for others.
  • Reading and collecting recipes.
  • Increased use of spices, condiments and chewing gum.
  • Increased consumption of fluids.
  • Episodes of bingeing or perceived overeating.
  • Secret disposal of food.

Can I beat anorexia?

It's a well known fact that eating disorders like anorexia can prove fatal in certain cases but it IS possible to make a full recovery. Both the psychological and physical aspects of the disease have to be assessed and treated.

  • The aim of treatment is to restore and maintain an adequate weight and to establish a regular eating habit.
  • Medication is not used very often.
  • Education about the nature of anorexia and about healthy eating habits is a very important part of treatment.
  • Psychological Interventions such as Individual Psychotherapy ('talking therapy') and Family Therapy are the main forms of treatment.
  • In Individual Psychotherapy the person with anorexia is encouraged to talk about personal difficulties and any other issues that may have a role in causing or maintaining the eating disorder.
  • Support from family and friends is very important in helping the individual to make progress.

In extreme cases, when someone with anorexia has serious physical symptoms associated with low weight and malnutrition, they may need in-patient treatment in a hospital.

If you feel that you may have an eating disorder you should contact your local GP or Bodywhys, which is the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland for more information and support. www.bodywhys.ie

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Published December 20th, 2012
Last updated February 7th, 2017
Tags anorexia eating disorder body image
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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