Anorexia

What is anorexia?

Anorexia (or anorexia nervosa) is a serious mental illness where people are of low weight due to limiting their energy intake. It can affect anyone of any age, gender, or background. As well as restricting the amount of food eaten, they may do lots of exercise to get rid of food eaten. Some people with anorexia may experience cycles of bingeing (eating large amounts of food at once) and then purging.

The way sufferers see themselves is often at odds with how others see them – they often have a distorted image of themselves, and think they’re larger than they really are. They experience a deep fear of gaining weight, and will usually challenge the idea that they should.

Sometimes, someone’s symptoms may not exactly match all the criteria a doctor checks for to diagnose anorexia – for example, they may remain at a weight considered “normal” for their age, sex, and expected development. Depending on the exact symptoms, they might be diagnosed with atypical anorexia or another form of other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). This is just as serious and can develop both into or from anorexia. It’s just as important that people suffering with OSFED get treatment as quickly as possible.

The behaviour associated with anorexia can contribute to a feeling of control – many people who have spoken to us about their anorexia have said that they felt they could control what they ate and their body weight when they didn’t feel they could control other aspects of their lives. There are many different reasons that someone might develop anorexia, but it’s important to remember that eating disorders are often not about food itself. They are mental illnesses, and treatment should address the underlying thoughts and feelings that cause the behaviour.

Is anorexia serious?

Anorexia can cause severe physical problems because of the effects of starvation on the body. It can lead to loss of muscle strength and reduced bone strength. People whose periods have previously started may find that they stop. They may also find that their sex drive decreases.

The illness can affect people’s relationship with family and friends, causing them to withdraw; it can also have an impact on their work or education. As with other eating disorders, anorexia can be associated with depression, low self-esteem, alcohol misuse and self-harm. The seriousness of the physical and emotional consequences of the condition is often not acknowledged or recognised, and sufferers often do not seek help – they may go to great length to hide their behaviour from family and friends, and sometimes might not realise that they’re ill.

Anorexia in children and young people is similar to that in adults in terms of its psychological characteristics. But children and young people might, in addition to being of low weight, also be smaller in stature than other people their age, and slower to develop physically. 

There are a number of signs of anorexia, but someone doesn’t have to have all of them to be suffering. It’s not always obvious that someone has an eating disorder – remember, they are mental illnesses.  If you’re worried about yourself or someone you know, even if only some of the signs on this page are present, you should still seek help immediately. The first step is usually to make an appointment with the GP.

What's it like to have anorexia?

I thought about food and calories all the time. I tried to avoid foods containing lots of fat or carbohydrates and only had ‘safe’ foods which I felt were okay to eat.
I had a 'voice' in my head that shouted at me. It told me I was fat and worthless and that I was not allowed to eat because I did not deserve food. I thought I was in control of my eating but it got harder and harder to ignore the voice.
As I lost weight I began to feel tired and this made me more depressed. I couldn’t think straight or concentrate at school. All I could think about was food because my brain and body was craving for it. I realise now I was suffering from the effects of starvation.
I suffered from the age of 12 until I finally sought help at the age of 24. At that point, I was pretty desperate and hopeless. I thought that change would never ever be possible and therapy was such hard work. It took a long time but I eventually entered recovery and have never looked back. My life now is wonderful - and I never thought that possible.

Issue date: September 2017  Review date: September 2020 Version 2.0 Sources used to create this information are available by contacting Beat. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.