Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder due by voluntary starvation. Anorexia nervosa is a complex disease, involving psychological, sociological and physiological components that will we address. A person who is suffering from anorexia is referred to as 'anorexic'. The term is frequently but incorrectly shortened to anorexia, which simply refers to the medical symptom of lost appetite.
Anorexia nervosa alters an individual's body image to the point where it is perceived as being fat, overweight and bilious irrespective of their actual size. This distorted body perception is a source of considerable anxiety, stress, and losing weight is considered to be the solution. However, when a weight-loss goal is attained, the anorexic still feels overweight and in need of further weight loss. It is as if they are thirsty, ever drinking but never quenching.
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The following is considered the "textbook" definition of anorexia nervosa to assist doctors in making a clinical diagnosis. It is in no way representative of what a sufferer feels or experiences in living with the illness. It is important to note that an individual can still suffer from anorexia even if one of the below signs is not present. In other words, it is dangerous to read the diagnostic criteria and think either oneself or others must not be suffering from this because one or more of the symptoms listed are not present.
- Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height (e.g., weight loss leading to maintenance of body weight less than 85% of that expected; or failure to make expected weight gain during period of growth, leading to body weight less than 85% of that expected).
- Maintaining excessive physical activity.
- Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight.
- Disturbance in the way in which one's body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight.
Restricting Type: during the current episode of anorexia nervosa, the person has not regularly engaged in binge-eating or purging behavior (i.e., self-induced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, etc.). Binge-Eating Type or Purging Type: during the current episode of anorexia nervosa, the person has regularly engaged in binge-eating OR purging behavior (i.e., self-induced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas).
Anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness. Starvation can cause major organs to shut down. A heart attack is one of the most common causes of death in those suffering with an eating disorder. People can die from eating disorders at any body weight.
While anorexia may occur in individuals across the demographic divides, it definitely appears to be far more prone to developing among those in certain groups, such as:
- females (95% of anorexia nervosa sufferers are females)
- those of age 10 through 25
- athletes; especially swimmers, dancers, and gymnasts
- people who are active in dancing, modeling or gymnastics
- people of European racial descent
- students who are under heavy workloads
- those who have suffered traumatic events in their lifetime such as child abuse and sexual abuse
- those positioned in the higher echelons of the socioeconomic scale
- the highly intelligent and/or high-achievers
Anorexia nervosa is typically stereotyped as being a disease of teenage females. However, in real-life, almost any individual can be a sufferer, as even children as young as three have been known to develop the disease. The most common times of onset are at puberty, and during times of transition such as moving from school to university. Males are at a greater risk of not recovering from the disease due to a reluctance to report symptoms.
The disease is believed to be far more common in some societies than others, especially those of Europe, the Americas and Australasia and the epidemic has caught on in India.
Though many do not realize it, younger children can also exhibit symptoms of anorexia nervosa. Children as young as five years may begin to diet, perhaps mimicking behavior they see in their parents. (For example, if a mother is obsessed with her weight, her daughter may begin to weigh herself.) These young anorexics have a fear of becoming "fat" and refuse to eat, as in classic anorexia nervosa.
Anorexic people may:
- be too thin and/or appear to have lost weight;
- be secretive about their eating and try to not eat whilst being around others;
- eat in a ritualistic nature (This can encompass taking abnormally small bites, cutting food up into abnormally small pieces, being sullen during mealtimes, staring at their food whilst eating, holding cutlery in odd ways or at strange angles at times, or eating slowly, especially when putting food into the mouth.);
- look longingly at or pay abnormal attention towards food but not eat it;
- cook wonderful meals for others but avoid eating the food they've made themselves;
- say they're too fat when they are not;
- talk about food a lot;
- plan their meals up to days in advance;
- have dry skin and thinning hair;
- suffer from poor health and sunken eyes;
- have grown lanugo, a thin hair that grows all over their body as a natural physiological reaction to severe starvation that serves to keep the body warm in the absence of fat;
- possess an extensive knowledge about the food energy contents of the different types of food, and the energy-burning effects of each form of exercise;
- have fainting spells or otherwise pass out (an effect of starvation);
- have amenorrhea, the absence of menstruation.
A person can be anorexic without displaying all of the above signs.