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Anorexia – Symptoms, Pictures, Statistics, Facts, Causes, Treatment

Written by Dr.Mary

What is Anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is a disorder with eating and causes individuals to become obsessed about the food they eat as well as their weight. These individuals try to keep a weight which is far below what is advised or normal for their height as well as age. In order to prevent any weight gain or in order to continue losing weight, these individuals with anorexia may actually starve themselves or exercise to the point of injury to their health.

The condition is not about food but it is about an unhealthy method to continue to cope with emotional problems. With this condition, the individual associates self-worth with their weight.

Anorexia is very difficult to overcome. But with proper treatment, the individual can increase their sense of who they are, returning to eating habits which are healthier as well as reversing the serious complications of anorexia.

Anorexia Statistics and Facts

Anorexia stats are indeed very grim. Without treatment, approximately 20% of individuals with any serious disorders of eating will die. With treatment, that number of deaths will drop approximately 2-3%. Stats on anorexia also show that the mortality rates from this disorder are higher than any other psychological disorder.

Stats also show that even with treatment only 60% make a total recovery. Approximately 20% will partially recover which means that these individuals may be able to keep a job and maintain a few shallow relationships but they will still remain focused on weight and food. These individuals will continue to, in some cases, abuse diet pills or laxatives. They remain thin. The last 20% will remain perilously underweight. They are regularly seen in mental health clinics, emergency rooms as well as treatment programs for eating disorders.

Those with anorexia may suffer from numerous potentially fatal medical problems, such as kidney and liver disease, heart disease, and potassium and magnesium imbalances which lead to heart failure. Additionally, these individuals often have problems with osteoporosis which causes brittle or thinning bones, blood pressure problems, dizziness and fainting, ulcers, heart rhythm irregularities, headaches, nausea and countless other physical as well as emotional problems.

Most anorexics are young women except for approximately 10% who are male. Scientists do not know exactly why there are more females than males.

Approximately between 1-5% of all female adolescents as well as young women are anorexic. The average age at onset is 17 years of age. But there are some rare cases of children as young as 10 years of age having this disease. Older women who suffer with these problems were normally diagnosed in their teens or early twenties. It is extremely rare for anyone to be diagnosed after the age of 40.

Anorexia is more predominant in western cultures than in countries which are non-western. Many believe that this is because of the media in the west which puts such a premium on women in order to be desirable must be beautiful as well as thin. But recent stats have shown that the number of individuals with anorexia as well as other eating disorders is on the rise in non-western countries, perhaps due to more exposure with western culture and media.

Statistics on anorexia are not very good as far as treatment goes. There are only about 1 in 10 individuals with eating problems receiving treatment. As mentioned before 20% of individuals with anorexia that do not get any treatment will die. About 80% of individuals getting treatment will not get enough of it – if receiving inpatient care they are sent home before the recommended length of treatment. They may leave against medical advice; their insurance coverage may be refusing to pay and many other reasons. Statistics have shown that treatment as an inpatient on average costs approximately $1000 a day and the recommended length of stay is normally 3 to 6 months.

Other related anorexia statistics include:

  • 40-60% of girls in high school are dieting
  • 50% of girls between 13 and 15 years of age think they are too fat
  • 80% of girls who are 13 years old have dieted
  • 40% of girls who are 9 years old diet

Anorexia Symptoms

Individuals with anorexia have a number of emotional, physical as well as behavioral symptoms and signs.

Physical Symptoms of Anorexia

  • Thin appearance
  • Extreme weight loss
  • Abnormal blood work
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Bluish discoloration of the fingers
  • Hair is thin, breaks or falls out
  • Brittle nails
  • Absence of menstruation
  • Downy, soft body hair
  • Constipation
  • Intolerance of cold
  • Dry skin
  • Low blood pressure
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Dehydration
  • Swelling of arms or legs
  • Osteoporosis

Behavioral and Emotional Symptoms

  • Denying hunger
  • Refusing to eat
  • Flat mood, or lack of emotion
  • Excessive exercising
  • Withdrawal socially
  • Irritability
  • Preoccupation with food
  • Depressed mood
  • Reduced sexual interest
  • Use of herbal products or diet aids

Red flags to watch for include:

  • Meal skipping
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Eating only a few “safe” foods, low in calories and fat
  • Cooking intricate meals for other but refusing to eat
  • Having rigid eating or meal rituals such as spitting food out after chewing or cutting food into tiny pieces
  • Repeated weighing of self
  • Frequent looking at perceived flaw in the mirror
  • Complaining about being too fat
  • Not wanting to eat in public

Those with anorexia may have some red flags that should cause concern for family and friends.

These include:

  • Obsessed about food
  • Spend time agonizing over options in the grocery store
  • Exercising to exhaustion
  • Host of physical problems
  • Angry, moody, sad, anxious
  • Only eating lettuce, carrots, popcorn and diet soda

There is a point where concern about the individual’s health comes to a place where the person must see a physician and get under a physician’s care.

Anorexia Causes

What causes some individuals to develop anorexia while others don’t is not known. There is the possibility that it is really a combination of psychological, biological and sociocultural factors.


Individuals with anorexia could possibly have emotional as well as psychological features which contribute to anorexia. They can have an obsessive-compulsive personality which makes it easier to stay to strict diets as well as forgo food in the face of being hungry. It is possible that they have a great motivation for perfectionism, which means they never think they are good enough.


Many people may be genetically pre-disposed to developing anorexia. Young females with a biological sister or mother with eating problems are at a very high risk, for instance, which suggests a possible genetic link. There have been studies with twins which support that idea. But, it is not specifically clear how genetics can play a role, even though medical professionals have realized there is an area on chromosome 1 which appears to be linked with an increased vulnerability to anorexia.

It could be also that some individuals have a genetic tendency for perfectionism, perseverance, sensitivity which are all traits linked with anorexia. There is some evidence that serotonin – which is a brain chemical involved in depression – may have a role in anorexia.


The modern day western culture can reinforce and cultivate a desire for thinness. The media is full of images of thin models and actors. Worth as well as success are very often linked with being thin. Peer pressure also energies this desire to be thin, especially with young females. But, anorexia as well as other disorders with eating existed many centuries ago, proposing that sociocultural values are not the sole reason.


There are certain risk factors which increase the risk of anorexia, including:


Anorexia is most common in girls and women.

Young age

Anorexia is most common among teenagers.


There is some evidences that an area on chromosome 1 which is linked to an increased risk of this disorder.

Weight Changes

Weight loss or gain is reinforced by positive or negative comments which can trigger the urge to begin dieting to an extreme.


Any type of transition can bring emotional distress and increase the risk of anorexia. This can include a new school, home or job, breaking up of a relationship or the death or illness of a loved one.

Sports, work and artistic activities

Those individuals in these areas are at a higher risk of anorexia. In some sports ultra-thinness may be a professional requirement. Sports linked to anorexia include wrestling, running, figure skating as well as gymnastics. Those individuals on the career fast tract may believe they can improve their upward mobility by being thin and so they take it to an extreme.

Society and media

The media and our society for instance television and fashion project images of skinny actors and models and being thinness is often equated with popularity and success.

Anorexia Treatment

When an individual has anorexia, they may have need of several types of treatment – especially when their life is immediately in danger – they may need treatment in an emergency department for several issues such as disturbances of heart rhythm, electrolyte imbalance, dehydration or problems with mental health.

Below are listed common management used in treating individuals with anorexia:

Medical care

Since there are a host of complications caused by anorexia, the individual will need to be frequently monitored for vital signs, electrolytes, hydration as well as other related physical conditions. For those with severe cases, they might need initially to be fed thru a tube which is placed thru the nose and goes to the stomach – commonly called a nasogastric tube. The patient’s primary care physician will normally be the one who coordinates the care with other medical professionals. In some cases, the mental health provider may manage the care.

Restoring a healthy weight

The primary goal of any treatment is to restore a healthy body weight. An individual cannot recover from an eating disorder without first reestablishing the normal weight as well as learning appropriate nutrition. Usually this guidance on diet will be presented by a dietitian and will contain detailed meal plans as well as calorie necessities to help meet weight goals.


Family-based, individual as well as group therapy will be beneficial.

  • Individual therapy – This is therapy to help with behavior and thoughts that contribute to anorexia. Helps with gaining a healthier self-esteem and in also learning positive methods for coping with distress and feelings. One type of individual therapy used is known as cognitive behavioral therapy. Psychiatric hospitalization or day treatment programs also are available.
  • Family-based therapy – This is therapy for making sound eating decisions and health decisions by using the entire family. This therapy is assuming that the person with the eating disorder is no longer capable of making these decisions on their own.
  • Group therapy – this is therapy which offers the person with anorexia a way to connect with others also facing eating disorders.


There are really no drugs designed to treat anorexia as they have shown limited benefit in treating this eating disorder. But, antidepressants or other psychiatric medications can help with any mental problems or disorders.


This is used when there are medical complications, psychiatric emergencies, continued refusal to eat, as well as severe malnutrition. This could be on a medical ward or a psychiatric ward. There are many clinics that treat only those with eating disorders. They may also offer day programs or residential programs, instead of full hospitalization.

Treatment challenges

Some cases of anorexia are more severe than others. Less severe cases may take less time for treatment and recovery. But the biggest challenges in treating this disorder is that the individual may not want treatment either because they believe it is not needed or they are concerned about gaining weight. There are also individuals who don’t believe that this disorder is a problem. There are even websites which are pro-anorexia and offer tips on which foods to avoid and how to fight hunger pangs.

Even if the patient wants to get better, anorexia has a tremendous pull and can be difficult to overcome – in fact, it often becomes a lifelong, ongoing battle.

Anorexia Pictures


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