A Parent's Guide to Understanding Anorexia Part 1/2

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia Nervosa, often just called Anorexia, is an eating disorder wherein an individual has a distorted body image. This misperception leads to an avoidance of food and severely restricted caloric consumption. Low body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight are characteristic traits. Anorexia is a psychophysiological disorder which, if left untreated, can eventually lead to death.

Who might be at risk of developing Anorexia?

Anyone can develop an eating disorder, however there are certain individuals who seem to have an increased risk. Women are, of course, more likely to develop an eating disorder than are men. That said, the rates of Anorexia Nervosa in men is increasing somewhat. More research is needed to determine the cause of eating disorders, however those at risk may include high strung individuals with a stringent set of ideals. People who exhibit perfectionism in their pursuits both academically and extracurricular. Someone with a family history of obesity. An individual prone to dieting on a regular basis. A history of physical or sexual abuse. Someone who has been subject to bullying and/or teasing. Elite athletes who believe their success depends on maintaining and achieving a certain ideal weight. Aspiring to a profession which focuses on weight and appearance (dancers, models, actresses, etc.) Someone who struggles with depression or anxiety. A tendency toward addictive behaviors, perhaps manifest in alcohol or substance abuse.

What are the signs and symptoms of Anorexia?

The symptoms of Anorexia can be easy to hide, initially, but to a concerned and watchful parent they should become relatively easy to spot, particularly as the disorder progresses. Keep in mind, however, that generally the person suffering from the eating disorder will feel guilt and shame and will try to prevent anyone from noticing their struggles. Warning signs may include;

  • A refusal to eat certain foods. This may be in the form of cutting out an entire food group, i.e. carbohydrates, sugar, fat. It may also be just individual foods like no longer eating beef or refusing to eat bread.
  • Always being ''on a diet''. This can become a common excuse for avoiding food and social situations where food may be served. It is so common for young women, in particular, to be on a diet that until the weight loss becomes excessive this may not be considered a problem.
  • Strange eating patterns. Cutting up food into tiny pieces, chewing each bite a certain number of times, eating only one food at a time, refusing to let foods touch, pushing food around the plate.
  • Excessive exercise. Anything more than an hour per day of high intensity exercise would be considered excessive. Many elite athletes do exercise more than this, but for the average young woman this could be cause for concern. Current recommendations are 2-3 days per week of weight bearing exercise with 8-12 repetitions of the exercise per body part. 3-5 days of cardiorespiratory training for 20-60 minutes per session. 2-3 days per week of flexibility training.
  • Wearing baggy clothes to hide her figure. This could be because the individual feels fat and wants to hide her supposed horrible figure. It could also be an attempt to hide the excessive weight loss from not eating. Additionally, sometimes there is a desire to avoid growing up and baggy clothing can hide the fact that a womanly figure is emerging.
  • Preoccupation with food. Wanting specific information on nutritional values of foods, knowing the exact fat and calorie content of foods, talking about and thinking about food all of the time.
  • Weight loss. This is a relatively obvious sign, however initially the weight loss may be seen as a good thing. If the young woman was somewhat overweight, the initial weight loss may be complimented. This acknowledgment and attention may feed the desire to lose even more weight. Anorexics typically can get down to less than 85% of normal height and weight for age.
  • Sensitivity to cold. Loss of body fat leaves the body sensitive to temperature and feeling cold when everyone around is comfortable.
  • Labeling foods ''good'' ''bad'' etc. Giving a moral connotation to the foods available and feeling guilty for eating ''bad'' foods. Eventually even healthy foods can be designated as ''bad'' because of a high calorie content. Good examples of this would be nuts and avocado.? Dizziness or lightheadedness. Drop in blood pressure, dehydration, iron deficiency anemia. All can lead to dizziness and lightheadedness. This may be particularly sensitive to change in position.
  • Frequent headaches.
  • Avoidance of social situations which may involve food. As mentioned above, the excuse that she is "on a diet" may be used to avoid social situations. People who have Anorexia don''t necessarily want people watching them eat. This may be because they don''t want people analyzing what, if anything, they are eating. Additionally, it could just be a way of avoiding the temptation of food. It is a common misperception that Anorexics don''t get hungry. This is not the case. They do feel hunger, but their fear of weight gain and desire to be ''in control'' of their appetite is stronger than their hunger.
  • Absence of menstrual periods (amenorrhea). Strict dieting and excessive exercise can lead to a disruption in the flow of hormones. Consequently, the body doesn''t produce enough estrogen and progesterone. Ovulation is suppressed and menstruation stops.
  • Anxiety and/or depression. This is a vicious cycle in regards to eating disorders. Feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self worth can lead to Anorexia. The physical and mental effects of the Anorexia can lead to even more depression and anxiety. The eating disorder and depression continue to feed off of each other, each aggravating the other.
  • Eating rituals such as only using a certain cup to drink out of or always insisting on a certain fork. These are small methods of exerting control over the environment where food is involved.
  • Increased interest in food, cooking, collecting cook books etc. Although someone with Anorexia will avoid eating, the hunger causes a huge interest in food. Being around food and providing food for others become almost an obsession as the body fights for the nutrients it needs but is being deprived of.

Avalon Hills Eating Disorder Treatment Center is located in Utah and has two eating disorder clinics for anorexia and bulimia. Learn more about anorexia symptoms