Anorexia Nervosa: When Dieting is More Than Reducing Calories

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that can cause extreme problems if not addressed. The disorder is characterized by a significantly smaller BMI than should be maintained for an individual’s height and weight. To gain a proper diagnosis, a doctor will need to not only look at an individual’s BMI but also examine their eating habits, exercise schedules, and personality traits before arriving at a diagnosis. It is important to remember that anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder that may affect those who are diagnosed with it by providing them with a distorted body image that causes them to see themselves as significantly heavier than they appear to others.

What Is the Difference Between Dieting and Anorexia Nervosa?

Many times, people may confuse extreme diets with the condition anorexia nervosa due to the similarity in restrictive eating patterns. In truth, there are major differences between the two. When one diets, they are simply trying to control and reduce their weight. In the case of anorexia nervosa, the person is often trying to get control in their life either due to inherent genetic predisposition, psychological issues, or as a way to deal with trauma. Those with the eating disorder will begin to equate weight loss with happiness because it puts them back in control. Another stark difference between the two is the fact that while some diets may not be completely healthy, they will not come with the potential severe sides effects that can occur with anorexia nervosa.

Are There Types of Anorexia Nervosa?

When diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, the condition will most likely be classified into one of two types that the disorder can take.

  • Restrictive – When someone has restrictive anorexia nervosa they are often highly disciplined at reducing the amount of food and calories they consume to control their weight loss. They will often avoid all foods that are high in fat or high in sugar and will consume far fewer calories than they need to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Binge/Purge – Binge/purge anorexia nervosa will combine restrictive eating with purging when eating does occur. When someone with anorexia nervosa consumes something that is either part of their diet restriction or is considered excessive, they will find ways to try to the purge the calories they consumed through vomiting, excessive exercising, or regularly taking laxatives.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms That Someone May Struggle with the Anorexia?

When determining whether or not someone may need to seek out eating disorder treatment, it is best to look at the overall signs and symptoms that can occur when someone is battling anorexia nervosa. Some of the common signs and symptoms that can be found with anorexia nervosa include:

  • Excessive dieting that restricts food intake to below the norm
  • Rapid weight loss and maintaining a BMI that is severely underweight
  • Obsessive calorie counting and food content checking
  • Having specific eating habits like eating food in small pieces or eating alone
  • The absence of menstruation due to fat loss often referred to as amenorrhea
  • Lethargy or overall lack of energy
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Development of fine hairs on the face and the body
  • Constantly being cold especially on fingers and toes
  • Loss of hair
  • Isolation and withdrawal from activities

What Are Some of the Causes of Anorexia Nervosa?

While the primary causes of anorexia nervosa are not known many doctors believe that it is a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors that can lead to the occurrence of the disorder. Some of the things found to be linked to developing anorexia nervosa are:

  • Having a parent or sibling with an eating disorder
  • Being a perfectionist or overachiever
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality traits
  • High levels of anxiety
  • The modern obsession with thinness and its equation with success and happiness

What Demographic Is Most Likely to Develop the Disorder?

While there is no set type of person that is affected by anorexia nervosa many people who seek eating disorder treatment will fall into these demographic categories.

  • Women – Eating disorders in women is more common overall than men, with 0.9% of the female population battling with anorexia nervosa at least once in their lifetime.
  • Athletes – Due to the restrictions to body weight and size for the performance of many athletic activities, athletes are more likely to suffer from anorexia nervosa in an attempt to control their body weight to excel at their chosen activity.
  • Teens – While anorexia nervosa can occur at any age, those seeking eating disorder treatment for the condition are most often teenagers. This has been attributed to their changing body as well as social and peer pressure they may experience.
  • Those with diagnosed mood disorders – Between 33% and 50% of all patients entering eating disorder treatment centers will have also been diagnosed with a mood disorder such as depression. This is typically more common for those who have binge/purge anorexia disorder.
  • Those diagnosed with anxiety disorders – Almost half of the patients who have gone through eating disorder recovery have a coexisting anxiety disorder such as social phobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What Complications May One Experience as a Result of the Condition?

Anorexia nervosa is often recommended to be treated in an eating disorder treatment center due to the severe complications that can occur if eating disorder recovery is not sought. Most of the difficulties are caused by the body not receiving the nutrients it needs to be able to function in a normal way. As a response to lack of nutrition, the body may begin to slow necessary processes in an attempt to conserve energy. Anorexia nervosa can affect a number of the major body systems including:

Cardiovascular System

  • When a person’s body is starving, their body will begin to break down tissue to be able to use for fuel. Muscles are the first organs to begin to break down and the heart is the most vital muscle in the body. When the heart’s ability to pump begins to decrease it will drop blood pressure and increase heart rate, increasing the –risk of heart failure.
  • Purging techniques through the use of laxative and vomiting will deplete your body of electrolytes that are important to maintain heart rate. Additionally, excessive water intake for dieting can also cause electrolyte imbalances which can cause an irregular heartbeat and lead to heart failure.
  • When the body begins to conserve energy, the resting metabolic rate will be lowered.

Gastrointestinal System

  • Gastroparesis, also known as slowed digestion, can occur when restriction of food and purging begins to interfere with the digestion of nutrients and the stomach emptying process. The slowing of digestion can lead to stomach pain, nausea, blood sugar fluctuations, intestinal blockages, and bacterial infections.
  • Severe constipation can also occur when there is an inadequate nutritional intake as the body is not sensing enough food to attempt to eliminate it. Additionally, depleted nutrients can weaken the muscles that are in the intestines preventing them from having the strength to push waste out of the body.
  • The lining of the esophagus can wear down and even rupture due to the acid produced by severe vomiting.
  • Pancreatitis can occur both as a result of inadequate nutrition as well as purging
  • Blockages from being unable to completely void the bowels can lead to intestinal obstruction, infections, and perforations which can be life-threatening when they occur.

Neurological System

  • Even though the brain is a small organ, it requires one-fifth of the calories the body takes in to be able to function correctly. When someone excessively diets, fasts, or starves the body, the brain is deprived of the calories it needs which can lead to food obsession and concentration difficulties.
  • When the body is extremely hungry, it can cause problems with staying asleep or even getting to sleep.
  • The intake of fat is required to maintain the protective and insulating layer that protects the brain and allows it to conduct electricity. When this occurs, a person may experience numbness, especially in the body’s extremities.
  • Severe dehydration and imbalances in the electrolytes in the brain can result in muscle cramping and seizures.
  • When the body slows down, there may be less blood being pushed to the brain which can lead to dizziness and fainting spells

Endocrine System

  • Necessary hormones in the body are gained by the consumption of cholesterol and fat. When fat and calorie intake falls, it can lead to a drop in sex and thyroid hormones. Eating disorders in women can lead to such side effects as bone loss, and the loss of menstruation.
  • When the body is lacking the energy it needs to ignite its metabolic fire, there can be a drop in temperature that can lead to hypothermia.

Other Complications

  • Lack of fat consumption can cause skin and hair to dry out, become brittle, and break.
  • Severe malnutrition and dehydration can lead to kidney failure.
  • Lack of proper nutrition can lower the number of certain types of blood cells.
  • Lack of iron can lead to anemia which can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, and weakness.

How Does Anorexia Nervosa Affect Patients Socially?

When considering whether or not to seek out treatment options for eating disorders, it is important to consider the way anorexia nervosa not only affects someone physically but socially as well. Research shows that those who battle eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa will be more physically inhibited and as a result be more isolated in their lives.  There are many ways in which anorexia nervosa can lead to social issues.

  • Someone with anorexia nervosa may feel uncomfortable eating around others due to food rituals or comments about the amount of food they eat.
  • Lack of energy that can come from anorexia nervosa leads to focusing on surviving and preserving energy to get through necessary daily activities which causes external relationships to be of less importance.
  • Neurological changes that can occur from the condition can cause problems with social interactions.
  • They may avoid social situations due to feelings about their body or size.
  • Impaired perception of social cues can occur when the body is undergoing the stress of starvation.

What Kinds of Treatment Are Effective for Anorexia Nervosa?

Whether you seek out outpatient eating disorder treatment, eating disorder counseling, or inpatient treatment at an eating disorder facility, getting help is a vital part of achieving and maintaining eating disorder recovery. Treatment for anorexia nervosa at an eating disorder treatment center will often encompass a multi-disciplinary approach to make sure that the patient is treated for their current emotional and physical needs as well as treatment to address any underlying or co-occurring conditions. Both inpatient treatment options for eating disorders and outpatient eating disorder treatment will involve a combination of medical, nutritional, and therapy components.

  • Medical – One of the highest priorities for the treatment of anorexia nervosa is to address the physical and medical issues that have arisen from the lack of nutrition and body deprivation.
  • Nutrition – At Monte Nido’s eating disorder facilities we incorporate a comprehensive program geared to restoring the weight as well as setting up a plan to maintain a healthier relationship with food and eating.
  • Therapy – Eating disorder counseling is an essential treatment option for eating disorders to be able to address the underlying causes of the eating disorder which can provide them with better-coping skills and allow them to deal with any underlying trauma that may have added to the development of the disorder.

Can Anorexia Nervosa Be Cured Without Treatment?

Due to the severe physical strain that anorexia nervosa can put on the body getting inpatient or outpatient eating disorder treatment at a certified eating disorder facility is vital to not only address and reverse the physical consequences form anorexia nervosa but also aid the patient in finding the underlying cause and ways to prevent relapses in the future.