What is Anorexia?

Aoife Ryan looks at anorexia in a 4 part series

Part 1 ; What is Anorexia?

Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder characterised by self-starvation and weight loss and/or control. The word ‘anorexia’ literally means loss of appetite, although most sufferers of the disorder might actually experience intense hunger but have learned to manage and control it. Refusing to eat enough to maintain a healthy body weight leaves both the mind and the body deprived of the nutrients needed for healthy, everyday functioning. A person with anorexia is likely to try to hide the disorder from their loved ones, and be very private about their diet. Sufferers often experience a decreased desire to engage in social interactions as they may be put in a position where they feel pressured to eat. Anorexia is a serious illness, but a full recovery is possible with the right support and treatment.

Anorexia is not a choice. The illness generally begins with normal dieting, through the restriction of certain foods that are high in calories and believed to be fattening, followed by the gradual elimination of more and more foods. As the disorder progresses, the drive and the determination to lose weight become more and more obvious and dietary and lifestyle changes reach a level of worry. Other ways a person with anorexia may try to lose weight or maintain a low body weight include excessive exercise, fasting, purging the food they do eat, and the use of laxatives or appetite suppressants.

Anorexia nervosa is most common in females aged 12-26, but can affect both males and females of all ages. What makes one person more vulnerable to anorexia than another is down to many varying factors. It is not simply a desire to lose weight, there are many psychological and emotional issues generally underlying the physical distress. For long-term recovery to be possible, all factors should be addressed.

The main features typically seen in a sufferer of anorexia may include some or all of the following:

  • Restriction of food intake
  • Excessive exercise
  • Social withdrawal
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Disrupted hormone balance (In females, periods may become irregular or stop completely)
  • Difficulty sleeping, constant tiredness
  • Preoccupation with body weight and size
  • Poor circulation, increased sensitivity to cold
  • Obsessive/compulsive behaviour around food and otherwise
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Rituals around food and eating
  • Feeling fat even when underweight
  • Frequent weighing of self