Anorexia Nervosa

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Anorexia nervosa is marked by self starvation with food refusal, food rules, rigid eating behaviors, and a persistent irrational fear of gaining weight that does not resolve with continued weight loss.

It lies on the restrictive end of the eating disordered spectrum and many times people who suffer with this disorder are not able see or experience how much weight they are losing.

Often, it can feel like the eating disorder and your brain are congratulating you for ignoring your body’ signals to feed yourself; society reinforces this with compliments at lower weight.

However, anorexia and other eating disorders are the most fatal mental illness, and it is important to seek treatment from a health professional. Learn about anorexia nervosa diagnosis and treatment below.

Definition, Symptoms, and Diagnosis

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is the restriction of food intake leading to reduction of body weight to below what is deemed acceptable and normal for the individual’s age and height.

Additionally, this is accompanied by a fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight, despite the person being significantly under a healthy weight. Individuals with anorexia nervosa typically do not realize and have difficulty acknowledging that they are seriously and dangerously underweight.  

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric illnesses due to starvation and malnutrition; however, full recovery is possible and early treatment is the best step.

Prevalence of anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa affects 0.9% of American women at some point in their lives. 50-80% of the risk for anorexia is genetic, and nearly half of anorexia patients have a co-occuring mood disorder, such as depression.

Signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa

Diagnosing anorexia nervosa

The best way to assess whether you or your loved one is suffering from anorexia nervosa is to meet with an eating disorder specialist and get a full psychological and physical exam. Your therapist or psychiatrist will use the DSM-V (Diagnostics and Statistics Manual), a manual to diagnose mental health conditions. According to the DSM-V, the criteria for diagnosing anorexia nervosa includes:

Additionally, there are specifications about the severity of the condition, determined by the individual’s Body Mass Index (BMI).

What is atypical anorexia nervosa?

Atypical anorexia is defined by the DSM-V as having met all criteria for anorexia except for meeting a normal or above normal weight, which makes this difficult to diagnose.  Individuals with this condition often go without treatment or are even turned away from doctors because they don’t “look sick”.

Medical complications of anorexia nervosa

Treatment for anorexia nervosa

What is the best treatment for anorexia nervosa?

Most eating disorder treatment includes team approach: nutritionist, physician, psychiatrist, counselor etc. There are different levels of care depending on the severity of the eating disorder. The best approach to treatment is holistic and encompasses all of the different aspects and complexities of an eating disorder. physical and mental as well as social and interpersonal function.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven through decades of research to be one of the most effective treatments for anorexia nervosa. CBT helps with negative and distorted thinking patterns, which are part of the reason for restrictive behaviors. Residential treatment centers as well as hospitalization may also be necessary depending on the severity of the condition. Self-help and support groups are also helpful with recovery.

Helping a friend with anorexia nervosa

How can you help someone with anorexia nervosa?

The most important way to help a friend or loved one with anorexia is to be compassionate and understanding, even if you may not be able to fully understand what the individual may be experiencing. Let the person know that you are there to listen and that you won’t judge them. Avoid advising; rather, think more about listening and validating feelings. Researching the disorder to understand it better can be helpful, too. Ask if they are in treatment and what you can do as their friend or loved one to help support their treatment.

Here are some things to keep in mind when helping someone with anorexia nervosa.

Do

Don’t

How to help a friend struggling with bulimia nervosa >>
How to help a friend struggling with binge eating disorder >>

Additional resources for anorexia nervosa

Advocacy organizations for anorexia nervosa

National Eating Disorders Association: The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders. NEDA offers our programs and services to raise awareness, build communities of support and recovery, and fund research.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD): The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) is a non-profit organization headquartered in Illinois, providing support, awareness, advocacy, referral, education, and prevention work for people struggling with eating disorders.

Project HEAL: Project HEAL is a non-profit organization that advocates for everyone who is seeking treatment for eating disorders, regardless of their race, income, insurance plan, age, education level, sex, or sexual orientation. They provide financial assistance in accessing treatment for highly motivated applicants who want to recover from an eating disorder but cannot afford to pay for treatment. They also have a peer mentorship program called Communities for HEALing, in which they offer one-on-one support and local weekly support groups. Communities for HEALing is undergoing a research study that will demonstrate whether different kinds of mentorship can help people recover from an eating disorder, whether that is through peer mentorship or social support mentorship.

International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP): The International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP) provides ethical and professional standards for therapists, nutritionists, and other medical and mental health professionals  that treat eating disorders. They provide educational classes, and trainings in order to promote a standard of excellence in the field of eating disorders. They also certify that professionals have met prescribed requirements, help raise public and professional awareness for eating disorders, and assist in prevention efforts.

Find therapists specializing in anorexia nervosa

What to look for in a therapist who treats anorexia nervosa

Most eating disorder treatment includes team approach: nutritionist, physician, psychiatrist, counselor etc. There are different levels of care depending on the severity of the eating disorder. The best approach to treatment is holistic and encompasses all of the different aspects and complexities of an eating disorder: physical and mental as well as social and interpersonal function.

Find therapists who treat eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, on Zencare, below. Search by insurance, fees, and location; watch therapist introductory videos; and book free initial calls to find the right therapist for you!

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