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An eating disorder where preoccupation with dieting and thinness leads to excessive weight loss while the individual continues to feel fat and fails to acknowledge that the weight loss or thinness is a problem.

Symptoms of anorexia, or anorexia nervosa, include significant weight loss, continuation of weight loss despite thinness, persistent feeling of being fat even after weight loss, exaggerated fear of gaining weight, loss of menstrual periods, preoccupation with food, calories, nutrition and/or cooking, dieting in secret, compulsive exercising, sleep disorders, and a pattern of binging and purging. The condition also has psychosexual effects. The sexual development of anorexic adolescents is arrested, while adults who have the disease generally lose interest in sex. While the term anorexia literally means "loss of appetite," anorexics generally do feel hunger but still refuse to eat.

The great majority of anorexics (about 95 percent) are women. Risk factors for the disorder may include a history of alcoholism and/or depression, early onset of puberty, tallness, perfectionism, low self-esteem, and certain illnesses such as juvenile diabetes. Psychosocial factors associated with the disease are over-controlling parents, an upwardly mobile family, and a culture that places excessive value on female thinness. Emotionally, anorexia often involves issues of control; the typical anorexic is often a strong-willed adolescent whose aversion to food is a misdirected way of exercising autonomy to compensate for a lack of control in other areas of his or her life.

Medical consequences of anorexia may include infertility, osteoporosis, lower body temperatures, lower blood pressure, slower pulse, a weakened heart, lanugo (growth of fine body hair), bluish hands and feet, constipation, slowed metabolism and reflexes, loss of muscle mass, and kidney and heart failure. Anorexics also have been found to have abnormal levels of several neurotransmitters, which can, in turn, contribute further to depression. People suffering from anorexia often must be hospitalized for secondary medical effects of the condition. Sometimes the victim must be force-fed in order to be kept alive. Due to medical complications as well as emotional distress caused by the disorder, anorexia nervosa is one of the few mental disorders that can be fatal. The

The body of a woman with anorexia. (Biophoto Associates/Science Source. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission.)

American Psychiatric Association estimates that mortality rates for anorexia may be as high as 5 to 18 percent.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), anorexia nervosa and its related disorders, bulimia and binge eating disorder, afflict an estimated seven million women and one million men in the United States. The peak times of onset are ages 12 to 13 and age 17. The American Anorexia and Bulimia Association (AABA) calculates that as many as 1 percent of teenage girls become anorexic and 10 percent of those may die as a result.

In order to reduce the risks of eating disorders, cultural ideals connecting thinness and beauty to self-worth and happiness must change so that children establish healthier attitudes and eating behaviors, and learn to value themselves and others for intrinsic qualities, rather than extrinsic ones focusing on appearance. Treatment and cure for anorexia are possible through skilled psychiatric intervention that includes medical evaluation, psychotherapy for the individual and family group, nutritional counseling, and possibly medication and/or hospitalization. With treatment and the passage of time, about 70 percent of anorexics eventually recover and are able to maintain a normal body weight.

The American Anorexia and Bulimia Association is the principal and oldest national non-profit organization working for the prevention, treatment, and cure of eating disorders. Its mission is inclusive of sufferers, their families, and friends. The AABA publishes a quarterly newsletter reviewing developments in research and programming. It also organizes a referral network which includes educational programs and public information materials, professional services and outpatient programs, patient and parent support groups, and training of recovered patients as support group facilitators.

See also Body image; Bulimia

Further Reading

Epling, W. Rank. Solving the Anorexia Puzzle. Toronto: Hogrefe and Hubers, 1991.

Maloney, Michael. Straight Talk About Eating Disorders. New York : Facts on File, 1991.

Further Information

American Anorexia and Bulimia Association (AABA). 418 E. 78th Street, New York, New York 10021, (212) 734–1114.

American Dietetic Association (ADA) NCDC-Eating Disorders. 216 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, Illinois 60606,(800) 366–1655.

National Anoretic Aid Society. 445 E. Dublin-Granville Road, Worthington, Ohio 43229, (614) 436–1112.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). Box 7, Highland Park, Illinois 60035,(708) 831–3438.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaDiseases, Disorders & Mental Conditions