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Understanding Anorexia Nervosa



A disorder characterized by a distorted body image, an extreme fear of getting fat, and a rejection of food, with a relentless pursuit of thinness. To reach an “ideal” weight, a female may follow increasingly restrictive diets, often accompanied by hours of aerobics, weight training, calisthenics, or running. Food becomes a major preoccupation. The woman fails to realize there’s a problem even as her body wastes away. Around 30 percent of anorectics have this problem for their whole lives, and almost that many have at least one life threatening bout. Many die prematurely, and at least 5-18 percent of those hospitalized with anorexia later die of starvation or suicide.

The average age of onset for anorexia is 17, and it is rare in women over the age of 40. It can be triggered by a major stressful event, such as leaving for college, and progresses differently in different people. It may have a short course, from which the patient recovers. But anorexia is usually a chronic illness that comes and goes or worsens over many years.

Ninety percent of anorexia sufferers are women. For every 200 women in the general population, one to six will be affected by anorexia. Five to 18 percent of these affected women will die from this disorder. It is the leading cause of death among people seeking psychiatric help.


The symptoms of malnutrition that accompany anorexia include constipation, digestive discomfort, and bloating; dehydration, muscle cramps, and tremors; downy body hair on the face, back, or arms; flattened breasts; dull, brittle, thinning hair; cracked or dry skin; icy hands and feet; irregular heartbeat; and depression and anxiety.

What to Do?

Treatment of anorexia must focus on more than weight gain. In fact, weight gain should be secondary to the more serious underlying issues facing the anorexic. For those women whose weight loss has become so severe or has seriously impaired other body systems, hospitalization may be necessary.

 Diet: Regular eating patterns are necessary: either small frequent meals throughout the day or three meals daily, whichever is realistic and the individual will follow.

Avoid: Refined sugar, white flour, heavy starches, and fruit juice or caffeinated beverages, as they disrupt normal body chemistry. Avoid allergic foods.

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