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Anorexia Nervosa – mind over body?

skinny woman holding tummy

Just search “fitspiration”, an amalgamation of “fit inspiration” on any Instagram and you’ll be met with an onslaught of almost 100 million posts from people all around the world, showcasing their best-looking, often leanest, versions of themselves. With this relentless exposure to the “lives” of celebrities, professional athletes, and influencers that are seemingly more personal than ever, it is natural that there would be a rise in unrealistic expectations with regard to physical appearances. Read on to learn more about Anorexia Nervosa.

What is it?

Anorexia is a diagnosis that is characterised by the lack or loss of appetite for food, and this can happen as a result of many other underlying medical conditions like Alzheimer’s and cancer. Anorexia Nervosa on the other hand is a psychological disorder that stems from the intense fear that any food in general, will cause weight gain, and this comes with the inaccurate perception of being “fat” while possessing an abnormally low weight. 

Someone with this illness will try to lose weight rapidly by starving themselves, developing strict rules around their diet, working out excessively, taking laxatives or employing other methods. In other words, an affected individual trapped in this illness ends up extremely obsessed with dieting and how his or her body looks all the time. Consequently, they tend not to enjoy spending time with family, and friends, of which a huge proportion of social interaction takes place over meal times. 

If not diagnosed timely, apart from the mental and emotional stress that anorexia nervosa can inflict on the mind, it can result in life-threatening weight loss. In fact, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate among all other psychological disorders. 

Girls are more likely to suffer from it but men and women of all ages can be affected by it too. 

Two Types Of Anorexia Nervosa

The disease has been classified into two categories. 

Restriction: In this type, a person reduces weight by restricting food intake, often eating just enough to maintain basic functions, following strict diets, fasting and exercising excessively.

Binge-eating/Purging: Conversely, in this type, weight reduction is achieved by eating a large portion of food, and then coping with it by inducing vomiting or taking laxatives unnecessarily. It is different from Bulimia Nervosa whereby patients with Bulimia Nervosa exhibit the same behaviour, and can sometimes be overweight. Those with binge-eating/purging anorexia, are usually underweight. 

Below are some questions that will help you decipher if you or your loved one is being anorexic.

  • Do you feel “fat” despite people telling you that you are not?
  • Do you find it difficult to overcome the constant fear of being fat?
  • Do you lie to others about how much food you have eaten?
  • Are people around you worried about your rapid weight loss?
  • Did you start dieting or exercising when you felt anxious about how you looked?
  • Do you feel good when you have a very low food intake and exercise a lot?
  • Do you think your self-esteem and worth are based on your body size and weight?

If it is a YES for the questions there, it would be good to talk to someone about these anxieties and seek help if necessary. The following are the potential signs of anorexia and ways to recover from it.

Potential Symptoms Of Anorexia Nervosa

Apart from the tell-tales of the psychological symptoms already mentioned above, are the physical ones that come from anorexia:

  • A great loss in muscle mass
  • Fatigue, tiredness
  • Low blood pressure 
  • Low body temperature
  • Dizziness/headache
  • Constipation and bloating
  • Dehydrated skin
  • Swollen hands and feet
  • Hair loss
  • Infrequent menstrual periods in women
  • Fertility issues / reduced sex drive
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Osteoporosis
  • Increased facial or body hair 

What Causes Anorexia Nervosa?

Environmental, psychological and genetic factors can contribute to the development of this disease. For instance, environmental factors include the prevailing culture of media that depicts the ideal beauty standards of being thin. Also, certain professions or hobbies may compel a person to stay thin such as modelling, or certain sports. Pressure from unintentional remarks and comments from relatives and loved ones around them to look physically attractive, or maintain a certain look, may also play a part. 

When it comes to genetics, more research has to be done to solidify any claims. However, irregular hormonal changes may contribute to the development of anorexia too.

Now, before talking about all the possible ways to treat anorexia, it is mandatory to draw the difference between healthy dieting and anorexia in order to clear all the misconceptions that one has regarding body weight.


Healthy Dieting 

  • Efforts are made to shed off excess weight healthily within a realistic timeline. 
  • A sense of self-worth lies beyond how the body looks.
  • The understanding is that weight loss is primarily to improve one’s health, and the by-line reward is looking good. 
Anorexia Nervosa

  • An overwhelming sense of negativity regarding one’s body image and food.
  • A sense of self-worth is entirely dependent on how one looks and appears to others.
  • The aim of weight loss is to become happy and please others.
  • The person will attempt all means to become thin, regardless of the danger of certain behaviours. 

Treatment Methods 

fork and knife cutting pea on white plate

After a doctor confirms the diagnosis, apart from prescribing medications, there are other methods which involve many other people, which are equally as important to help fight this illness. 

Nutrition therapy: A team of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, like dieticians and counsellors,  will assist the patient to achieve and sustain a healthy weight by educating and enforcing healthy eating habits. 

Psychotherapy: This involves counselling done by professionals to help the patient cope up with the dangerous thoughts and behaviours associated with anorexia. However, this might come with great resistance from the patient, in their attempts to resist change and maintain control. This is also where family and the support of loved ones are important to help the patient spark an intrinsic change to change their mindset and behaviours, from within.

Medications: In some cases, medicines such as antidepressants are prescribed to combat depression and anxiety associated with anorexia. However, this method is large of limited proven benefit. 

In more severe cases, anorexic patients may need hospitalisation to receive proper treatment under closer monitoring to recover from more serious problems. Thereafter, it is a long-drawn treatment and rehabilitation period, but with the support of the people around a patient, recovery is possible. 

Help others by educating them about anorexia and telling them the differences with a healthy lifestyle, that will eventually lead to a healthy weight. More importantly, being understanding, patient, and having empathy will help your loved ones overcome their body image complexities.

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