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Questions Answered About Anorexia Nervosa, For Women and Men

Anorexia nervosa is a highly publicized and relatively common type of eating disorder that affects people from every background, afflicting individuals regardless of ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, or gender. Decades of clinical research have shown that it is more prevalent in adolescent girls and young adults. This fact does not mean that men and boys do not suffer from anorexia nervosa. Much to the contrary, NEDA estimates that one in three of the people who experience an eating disorder is male, whether cis- or transgender.

Parents and loved  ones of an individual who shows the signs and symptoms of anorexia nervosa may not know how to handle the situation, and while that’s a frightening proposition, it’s important to remember that anorexia nervosa is treatable.  Treatment begins with awareness. To that end, we’re outlining a few of the basic questions people dealing with this mental health condition for the first time might have.

To expedite a complete and long-lasting recovery, those closest to a person with anorexia nervosa should take the time to familiarize themselves with the basics of the disorder, and what their available options are when it comes to treatment. Read below to learn a little more about anorexia nervosa.

Frequently Asked Questions About Anorexia Nervosa

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa, like all eating disorders,is a very serious mental health condition involving psychological and physical symptom atology. Perhaps the most well-known (although not most common) type of eating disorder is anorexia nervosa. It has sometimes been portrayed (often unfairly or in an unrealistically frightening way) in films and other popular culture. ​The classic symptoms, as listed in the DSM-V include distorted and negative body image (thinking of themselves as “fat” or otherwise flawed, despite evidence to the contrary), extreme restriction of caloric intake, and often excessive exercise and or/ diet pill or laxative abuse.

How Is Anorexia Nervosa Diagnosed?

Another symptom of the disorder is the individual becoming medically underweight, which can bring several physical maladies, some of which can be life-threatening. These include lowering of bone density, anemia, extreme fatigue, hair loss and skin problems, and seizures, all of which are associated with malnutrition and starvation. This requirement for diagnosis is sometimes contentious, as it is possible for a person to restrict calories and meet all other symptoms of anorexia nervosa without becoming medically underweight.

This is labeled atypical anorexia nervosa, which can be just as dangerous as the more well-known form. Many treatment experts recommend a program that is focused more on behavior and intuitive eating rather than a strict focus on weight or numbers because of this. In general, since anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric disorder, a psychiatrist or psychologist makes the final diagnosis rather than a physician, although both can make the preliminary diagnosis and treatment recommendations. Eating disorder recovery of any kind can require extensive psychiatric and medical treatment.

Who Does Anorexia Nervosa Affect?

Virtually anyone can develop an eating disorder, at any age.However, the typical age of onset is age 14 – 21, which makes adolescent anorexia nervosa treatment necessary in many cases. That being said, extensive studies over decades have shown that anorexia nervosa does affect young women more frequently than other demographics.

It’s much more common than most people think, as well.

Recent research suggests that up to 7 percent of American women have displayed the signs of anorexia nervosa at some point in their life. In addition, anorexia nervosa is the 3rd most common ongoing mental health illness among adolescent young women– a striking figure considering how extreme the health risks associated with it can be.

As mentioned earlier, anorexia nervosa affects boys and men much more often than the popular perception might suggest. Because in media presentations eating disorders are labeled “female disorders,” men often go overlooked in diagnosis and treatment. According to surveys performed by the National Library of Medicine, males with eating disorders number in the millions in the USA.  Additionally, trans men and gay, cisgender men each have much higher rates of all eating disorders than the general population. Gender-inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly care is therefore prioritized in eating disorder treatment centers.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is often a source of shame for the individuals suffering from it, leading them to hide the behavioral and other signs that there’s a problem. However, there are certain signs that family members and other loved ones can look out for that will help make the next steps clearer.

Most prominent will be a disordered or distorted body image (commonly presenting as a persistent misconception that they are overweight, even if they are medically underweight) and consistently avoiding meals. They may leave food on the plate, find excuses to skip meals entirely and obsess over calories and fat/sugar intake. People with anorexia nervosa will normally avoid eating as much as possible, even to the point of starving themselves.

In some forms of anorexia, such as atypical anorexia nervosa, extreme weight loss may not occur, although they will suffer the same lack of vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients. Another common behavior that comes with anorexia nervosa is compulsive exercising or the abuse of laxatives or diuretics.

Does Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Really Work?

For most clinicians and treatment professionals, the term “cured” has no real application in recovery. It’s unrealistic to consider any mental health cured the way a cold might be. However, with personalized treatment that takes an individual’s unique needs into account, many people with eating disorders can enjoy a successful long-term recovery.

There are several components to a comprehensive eating disorder treatment program. First, medical stabilization must be secured. Some patients in a center for treatment require medical treatment, so in residential programs nursing and medical staff are present. Therapeutic and psychiatric care is also provided, in the forms of behavioral therapies like CBT and DBT as well as psychotherapy and mindfulness exercises.

Nutritional education, contributions from dietitians, and intuitive eating practices are essential parts as well – they stress learning to repair the relationship between an individual and eating as well as preparing clients to prepare their own meals when they return home. Finally, mindful movement practices like yoga and gentle walks are introduced to help clients reattain their relationship with their bodies without tempting a relapse of excessive exercise (a common symptom of anorexia nervosa).

Wrapping Up

For the most intensive cases, residential treatment programs might be necessary. In less severe cases and for people stepping down after residential treatment, anorexia nervosa treatment centers that offer a day treatment program may be a better option. This is also a useful course of action for adolescents who don’t want to interrupt their schooling. As with any form of mental health treatment, the chance of relapse greatly diminishes when teens have access to aftercare and a strong support system at home.

If someone you love is showing these signs or symptoms, don’t hesitate.  Reach out to your doctor or an eating disorder specialist as soon as possible.  Anorexia nervosa can be treated – and it’s best to get started sooner rather than later.

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.