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Anorexia Nervosa: Signs and Symptoms

Anorexia Nervosa:
Signs and Symptoms

I watch what I eat, and sometimes I diet. Do I have anorexia?
How does anorexia begin?
What will anorexia do to my body?

All human beings need to eat to stay alive and well. And most people want to eat because they enjoy it. In fact, sometimes you may eat too much of something you really like. Or, if you're busy, you may even forget to eat every once in a while. But for most people, eating is a normal part of everyday life.

That's not the case for everyone. In fact, millions of people in the United States today have what are called eating disorders. They eat too little or too much all the time—or some combination of the two. The three most common eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia is an eating disorder that affects mostly girls and women. (It affects boys and men, too, but not nearly as often.) People with anorexia starve themselves because they are afraid of gaining weight. They dread becoming fat and may think they are overweight, even if they weigh much less than they should. They sometimes start to feel as though there is something wrong with eating.

Some people with anorexia control their weight through excessive dieting and exercising. Others combine dieting with binge eating, meaning that they make themselves vomit after meals or misuse laxatives, diuretics, or enemas to get rid of the food in their bodies. back to top

I watch what I eat, and sometimes I diet. Do I have anorexia?
It's normal and healthy to care about what you put in your body, and to want to look and feel fit. For example, it's healthy to cut back on foods that are high in fat and sugar, such as potato chips and candy. But it isn't healthy to stop eating for long periods of time, to eat only one type of food, or to cut out foods altogether. Food is fuel, and young people especially need to eat different kinds of foods to grow, learn, and lead a healthy life.

It's also very common for teenage girls to go on diets for short periods of time. In our society, thin is considered beautiful, so it's natural to want to be thin. If you've lost a couple of pounds and then go back to eating normally, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you diet all the time, you think about food constantly, or your clothes begin to hang on you, you may need help. Even if you don't have anorexia, you may have eating habits that are dangerous to your body and mind. This is sometimes called "disordered eating." It's good to get help right away so that you don't develop anorexia or another eating disorder. back to top

How does anorexia begin?
Usually, a girl who develops anorexia is just the right weight (or maybe just a few pounds overweight) and decides she wants to be thinner. That's when she starts to diet. Many times, a girl will start trying to lose weight after somebody makes a mean comment about her body.

At first, most girls with anorexia just skip desserts and other foods that are high in calories. Soon, they are skipping entire meals. They may even sit at the table and pretend to eat when all they're really doing is pushing food from one side of the plate to the other or hiding it in a napkin.

Even though a girl with anorexia seems to be not interested in food, she is actually hungry and thinks about eating all day long. Sometimes she is hungry, but she may have lost touch with her body and cannot recognize what she is feeling as hunger. She may like to bake cakes and cookies for her family, and encourage everyone else to enjoy her treats, while she takes only tiny bites. After a while, she may lose her appetite altogether.

Many girls begin to exercise intensely to lose weight more quickly. They may wear baggy clothes to hide their bodies. They often spend lots of time looking in the mirror, thinking about all of the things they don't like about their different body parts.

In general, girls with anorexia have trouble talking about their feelings, especially anger. To avoid disappointing people, they often try to please everyone, which, of course, is not possible. If any angry feelings come up, they often withdraw into their own shell. Girls with anorexia can also be moody and hard to get along with—and they often argue the most with the people who are trying to help them.

It is important to remember that while anorexia is about eating, the disease is really about the deep feelings about personal and family problems that can cause a girl to starve herself in the first place. back to top

What will anorexia do to my body?
Anorexia can cause problems in many parts of the body. When you have had anorexia for a while, it can cause constipation (having a hard time moving your bowels), heart problems, kidney and liver problems, and stomach pain. You may develop dry, blotchy skin. The hair on your head may get thinner, and you may grow extra hair on your face, arms, and body. Anorexia can also cause anemia, loss of energy, changes in the brain, and bone problems like osteoporosis. You may feel cold all the time and have trouble sleeping. Most likely, you will also stop getting your period. With severe weight loss, you can no longer think clearly.

If you vomit or use laxatives on a regular basis, many other problems may develop—with your heart, muscles, teeth, bowels, and other important systems of the body.

It is important to remember that, even though anorexia affects the body in many ways, it is a serious psychological disease. People with anorexia have deep emotional and family problems. Most people with anorexia suffer low self-esteem. They may experience depression or anxiety and self-doubt. They may have obsessive thoughts or compulsive behavior. Some people with anorexia feel guilty or ashamed all the time, or lonely and hopeless. back to top

Last Modified Date: 4/4/2001
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