Anorexia

Anorexia is a serious mental illness where people keep their body weight low by dieting, vomiting, using laxatives or excessively exercising. The way people with anorexia see themselves is often at odds with how they are seen by others and they will usually challenge the idea that they should gain weight. For example, they often have a distorted image of themselves, thinking that they're fat when they're not. People affected by anorexia often go to great attempts to hide their behaviour from family and friends.

Often people with anorexia have low confidence and poor self esteem. They can see their weight loss as a positive achievement that can help increase their confidence. It can also contribute to a feeling of gaining control over body weight and shape.

As with other eating disorders, anorexia can be associated with depression, low self-esteem, alcohol misuse and self-harm.

Anorexia is a serious condition that can cause severe physical problems because of the effects of starvation on the body. This can lead to loss of muscle strength and reduced bone strength in women and girls; in older girls and women their periods often stop. Men can suffer from a lack of interest in sex or impotency.

The illness can affect people’s relationship with family and friends, causing them to withdraw; it can also have an impact on how they perform in education or at work. The seriousness of the physical and emotional consequences of the condition is often not acknowledged or recognised and people with anorexia often do not seek help.Anorexia in children and young people is similar to that in adults in terms of its psychological characteristics. But children and young people might, in addition to being of low weight, also be smaller than other people their age, and slower to develop. 

Behavioural signs

  • Fear of fatness or pursuit of thinness
  • Pre-occupation with body weight
  • Distorted perception of body shape or weight, for example they think they are overweight when actually they are underweight
  • May underestimate the seriousness of the problem even after diagnosis
  • May tell lies about eating or what they have eaten, give excuses about why they are not eating, pretend they have eaten earlier
  • Not being truthful about how much weight they have lostFinding it difficult to think about anything other than food
  • Strict dieting
  • Counting the calories in food excessively
  • Avoiding food they think is fattening
  • Eating only low-calorie foodMissing meals (fasting)
  • Avoiding eating with other people
  • Hiding food
  • Cutting food into tiny pieces – to make it less obvious they have eaten little and to make food easier to swallow
  • Taking appetite suppressants, such as slimming or diet pills
  • Rigidity
  • Obsessive behaviour 
  • Excessive exercising
  • Vomiting or misusing laxatives (purging)
  • Social withdrawal and isolation, shutting yourself off from the world
  • Compromise of educational and employment plans
  • Can be associated with depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Physical signs

  • Severe weight loss
  • In girls and women, periods stop or are irregular (amenorrhea) 
  • Lack of sexual interest or potency
  • Difficulty sleeping and tiredness
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Stomach pains
  • Constipation and bloating 
  • Feeling cold or have a low body temperature 
  • Growth of downy (soft and fine) hair all over your body (called Lanugo)
  • Hair falls out
  • Getting irritable and moody
  • Setting high standards and being a perfectionist
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • WeaknessLoss of muscle strength
  • Effects on endocrine system 
  • Swelling in their feet, hands or face (known as oedema)
  • Low blood pressure

Long term effects 

  • Physical effects of starvation and consequences of purging behaviour. Starvation effects every system in the body 
  • In children, puberty is delayed and growth and physical development usually stunted 
  • Loss of bone density (osteoporosis)
  • Purging can result in erosion of tooth enamel
  • Difficulty conceiving, infertility 

People with anorexia have told Beat:

 I thought about food and calories all the time. I tried to avoid foods containing lots of fat or carbohydrates and only had ‘safe’ foods which I felt were okay to eat.
 I had a 'voice' in my head that shouted at me. It told me I was fat and worthless and that I was not allowed to eat because I did not deserve food. I thought I was in control of my eating but it got harder and harder to ignore the voice.
As I lost weight I began to feel tired and this made me more depressed. I couldn’t think straight or concentrate at school. All I could think about was food because my brain and body was craving for it.  I realise now I was suffering from the effects of starvation.
I experienced anorexia from the age of 12 until I finally sought help at the age of 24. At that point, I was pretty desperate and hopeless. I thought that change would never ever be possible and therapy was such hard work. It took a long time but I eventually entered recovery and have never looked back. My life now is wonderful - and I never thought that possible.

Find out more about Help and treatment.

Issue date: July 2014
Review date: July 2017
Version 1.0
Sources used to create this information are available by contacting Beat on 0300 123 3355 or emailing info@b-eat.co.uk. We welcome your feedback on our information resources and whether you found them helpful. Email info@b-eat.co.uk with your comments.