What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a serious psychological condition most commonly occurring in females, in which the individual has a severely distorted image of their own body, a pathological fear of being “fat,” and engages in extreme dieting and calorie restriction that leads to severe weight loss.

Sufferers restrict the amount that they allow themselves to eat and exercise excessively to burn calories, use amphetamines and appetite suppressants and may also vomit, take laxatives, enemas or diuretics. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder.

Signs & Symptoms of Anorexia

Some symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Extreme thinness
  • Intense fear of being “fat”
  • Distorted ideas about one’s own weight
  • Lethargy
  • Severe dieting and/or excessive restriction of sustenance
  • Menstrual cycle disturbance
  • Preoccupation with body appearance (specifically thinness)
  • Brittle skin and nails
  • Depression & anxiety
  • Obsessive exercising
  • Obesessive compulsive disorder
  • Other emotional disturbances.

For a comprehensive list of behavioural signs as well as medical symptoms of anorexia, visit The BEAT website.

Contributing Factors to Anorexia Nervosa

There is no one pathway to anorexia. Many individuals diagnosed with anorexia have experienced emotional and/or physical traumas in the past; struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions, or were exposed to intense pressure to perform and achieve early in their lives.

A licensed medical or mental health professional will assess for these factors in a clinical evaluation of any eating disordered behavior.

How to Recover from Anorexia

There are a wide range of inpatient and outpatient treatment modalities used to treat anorexia, including individual, group, and family therapies; medication therapies; skills training; medical nutrition therapies; creative therapies such as art and music therapies; as well as others. Family and peer support, and ongoing therapy from a licensed professional, can play a significant role in helping maintain recovery for an individual with anorexia.

Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | December 10, 2019