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What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

If you or a loved one is struggling with anorexia nervosa, we’re here to help. This page will provide helpful information, treatment options and guidance on what to do next.

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia (clinically known as anorexia nervosa) is self-imposed starvation. It is a life-threatening disorder that affects all races and genders, and usually stems from underlying emotional causes. People with anorexia continually deny their hunger and often limit or restrict other parts of their lives in addition to food—relationships, social activities or pleasure. It is common for those who have a diagnosis of anorexia to also experience co-occurring psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders (especially social anxiety and OCD), PTSD, and substance use. Anorexia can cause serious medical problems and even lead to death.

Anorexia Warning Signs

Anorexia symptoms are usually due to malnutrition. It is important to note that anorexia can occur at any body weight or size. Contrary to many beliefs, individuals can engage in restrictive eating behaviors without meeting the low weight criteria for the diagnosis of anorexia. This is what is known as “Atypical Anorexia” and this condition can cause serious medical problems.

Key signs you or someone you know may be struggling with anorexia include:

  • Decreased food and nutrition intake
  • Preoccupied with food, calories, nutrition, or cooking
  • Frequently checking body weight
  • Excessive dieting or food restriction
  • Distorted body image
  • Feel cold even though the temperature is normal
  • Denies hunger
  • Exercises obsessively
  • Hair loss or thinning hair

Is it Really an Eating Disorder?

We live in a culture with rigid ideals about food, weight and size, so it can be difficult to recognize when your thoughts and behaviors have become dangerous. Take a quiz and find out.

Anorexia Treatment & Levels of Care

Recovery means much more than just stopping dieting, restricting, binge eating, and purging. It also means identifying the patterns, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that underlie disordered eating – and working to build emotional tolerance so that individuals no longer need eating disorder symptoms as a means of coping.

To achieve this outcome, individuals must determine the best treatment environment and philosophy for their needs. Here is an overview of the most common types of treatment for Anorexia Nervosa.

Residential Treatment
Continuous in-person treatment. Often the most structured and intensive level of care.

Day Treatment
Comprehensive and consistent outpatient care with daily, in-person meetings.

Intensive Outpatient (IOP)
Intensive structure and treatment plans with consistent meetings several days per week.

Outpatient Services
Weekly structure and steady support, but provided at a slower pace than IOP.

Virtual Treatment
The same structured, intensive care of in-person, delivered virtually.

How to Help Someone With Anorexia

Individuals with anorexia deserve and require professional evaluation, diagnosis and treatment. Parents, family or friends—in collaboration with a mental health professional—can play an active and essential role in restoring healthy eating. Explore our library of, podcast episodes, and blogs on eating disorder topics.

Reach out to a Renfrew Program Information Specialist to schedule a FREE assessment or to learn more about our services.

Thinking About Treatment?

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia Nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by the restriction of caloric intake, intense fear of weight gain and high levels of body dissatisfaction. Those with anorexia may also experience a subtype that includes binge eating and purging symptoms in addition to restriction. Those with anorexia may also struggle to grasp the seriousness of their symptoms despite various medical and psychological complications.

How common is anorexia?

The lifetime prevalence rate of anorexia is approximately 4% among females and 0.3% in males, however research suggests that sexual and gender minorities may be at elevated risk. The symptoms of anorexia occur worldwide in people of all ages, genders, sexualities, races, and ethnicities regardless of body size or socioeconomic status.

What causes anorexia?

Anorexia is a complex mental health condition with no single identifiable cause. Instead, it seems to be triggered by an interaction between genetics and various environmental and experiential risk factors, including cultural, nutritional, biological, social, and psychological variables.

What are the most common signs for anorexia?

Restriction of food intake, intense fear of weight gain, body dissatisfaction, preoccupation with food and weight, and rigid rules about food and exercise.

How do I know if I need treatment for anorexia?

Ideally, anorexia is both detected and treated as early as possible. Anorexia can negatively impact your life across various domains, including your medical and mental health, your relationships, as well as your work and school performance. If any of these areas of your life are impacted, seek support.  

What should I do if I’m curious about treatment?

A confidential phone conversation with one of our Program Information Specialists is the best way to learn more about our services, answer your questions and address your concerns: Call 1-800-RENFREW (736-3739).

What forms of treatment are most effective for anorexia?

Anorexia is a complex psychiatric disorder that rarely travels alone. An effective treatment approach will ideally target multiple factors including the eating disorder symptoms, nutritional deficiencies, medical complications, and any co-occurring mental health diagnoses. A multidisciplinary team is recommended in the treatment of eating disorders so that all issues are addressed.

What is Renfrew’s treatment approach for anorexia nervosa?

The Renfrew Center provides treatment for anorexia nervosa through a multidisciplinary team of therapists, dietitians, medical providers, and psychiatrists. The Renfrew Center Unified Treatment Model for Eating Disorders® is a transdiagnostic, evidenced-based treatment approach that harnesses the healing power of relational connection and targets the core mechanisms that maintain eating disorders and co-occurring emotional disorders.

What is the role of a treatment team in anorexia recovery?

The treatment team supports and collaborates with each client, assesses the severity of the eating disorder symptoms, and monitors the progress in the recovery process. They make recommendations and provide individualized treatment interventions to meet their client’s psychological, medical, and nutritional needs. Support systems and outpatient providers are often a part of the treatment team to promote sustainable change outside of the treatment setting.

What is the long-term outlook for someone with anorexia?

Early intervention and the appropriate level of care can make a significant difference in the long-term recovery of those with anorexia. Due to the complex nature of the disorder, it will not likely resolve on its own or with time. Seeking the right level of treatment as soon as possible is recommended for best outcomes.

What can I do to support someone struggling?

We recommend that loved ones educate themselves on eating disorders and seek guidance from professionals when possible. It is important to note that eating disorders are not ‘fads’ or ‘phases’ and should not be ignored or dismissed. Family and friends should approach their loved one with compassion and concern and take steps to involve professionals as soon as possible.

Reach Out to Us

Call 1-800-RENFREW (736-3739)

Talk with a Program Information Specialist at the number above to learn more about our
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