Anorexia: Symptoms, causes and how to seek help


by Hayley Kadrou |
Published on

What is anorexia?

Anorexia is an eating disorder and a serious mental health illness, in which sufferers keep off their body weight obsessively with dieting, excessive exercise, laxatives and/or vomiting.

Anorexia sufferers usually have body dysmorphia, meaning that are often unable to see their body the way outsiders view it – often far from overweight or healthy.

Charity beat, who work to support anyone affected by eating disorders, explains:

“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.”

That’s not to say, of course, only people of certain size can be at danger – men and women of all shapes and sizes suffer from this upsetting and life threatening condition.

However, anorexia is most common amongst young women, often in their mid-late teens.

And sadly, cases are on the rise. Statistics from January 2014 showed that there was a national rise of 8 per cent in the number of admissions into hospitals for eating disorders.

According to the research commissioned by beat, it is estimated that 750,000 people are currently affected by an eating disorder.

How does an eating disorder like anorexia develop?

Dr. Hilary Jones, a GP, TV presenter, medical broadcaster and ambassador for Switch explains that there are patterns in how anorexia usually develops.

She says:

“Anorexia nervosa usually develops following a normal weight loss diet. This, in turn, may have been instigated by some psychologically stressful event, such as being bullied about weight issues or a relationship break up.”

She goes on to explain that external pressures may have an impact too, as we live in a culture that praises the thin, and dictates that our bodies should look a certain way.

When an individual is feeling particularly vulnerable, low in confidence, depressed or under a great deal of strain, external influences can seep further in and even take over a sufferer’s frame of mind.

In many ways monitoring your body image can be seen as a way to gaining control in at least one aspect of your life, especially if other factors out of your hands seem to be spiralling.

Dr. Hilary elaborates:

“Typically anorexics are labelled control freaks and whilst there may be an element of control in the way they behave, the reality is far more complex.

“Often anorexia is to do with deep and difficult emotions such as loneliness, depression, insecurity, a pressure to be perfect, combined with a sense of personal failure. These feelings are so unmanageable that physicalising them offers a coping strategy, one that ultimately is highly destructive.”

What are the signs and symptoms of anorexia?

It’s normal for us all to try diets different from time to time, or to want to shed a little weight here and there, but there becomes a point when this treads into dangerous territory.

It’s essential that we are able to differentiate between normal behaviour within a balanced and healthy lifestyle, from obsessive and dangerous habits.

Dr. Hilary says, in order to identify anorexia in a friend or family member, look out for any of the following symptoms:

• Refusal to eat

• Preoccupation with body weight and body size

• An obsessional interest in the subject of food

• A belief that they are overweight

• Wearing baggy clothes so as to conceal their body

• The use of appetite-suppressants and laxatives

• Excessive exercising

• Extreme weight loss

• Muscle wasting

• Swollen ankles

• Fine body hair

• The absence of the menstrual cycle (women).

What are the effects of anorexia on the mind and body?

As well as truly upsetting to witness by everyone around you, this illness can be seriously harmful to both an individual’s mental and psychical health. In some cases, it is even life threatening.

The long-term physical consequences of anorexia are far reaching including:

  • Osteoporosis

  • Infertility

  • Kidney failure

  • Heart failure

  • Malnutrition

  • Hair loss

  • Death

Mentally, going through such a tramatic illness cas causes the following psychological problems, too:

  • Low self esteem

  • Mood swings

  • Clinical depression

  • Social isolation and/or withdrawal

This is why it's essential to try and conquer anorexia as early as possible, seeking the right support and therapy.

How should loved ones approach people they suspect of suffering from anorexia?

It’s important to remember that a sufferer may have a difficult time opening up. They often wont want to admit to themselves or loved ones that they're ill.

Some may not want help, as they see their weight loss as positive.

Although difficult, do try talking to loved ones to offer support and advice in way that doesn’t shame them, shout at them, or attempt to control them.

Just start by letting them know you’ve noticed they’ve become ill, and that you’re here to help them in whatever way they need. Offer to go with the to the GP, go to meetings with them, and give them information they may find useful such as websites to visit and helplines to call.

If your attempts to help them help themselves are in vain – which it often will be - Dr. Hilary explains:

“It is usually up to a concerned member of the family or a friend to consult the GP.

“The doctor will examine the affected person and assess the degree of weight loss. Other causes of weight loss need to be excluded and a blood test may need to be arranged. Underlying associated psychological disorders, such as depression, will also be looked into."

Where can sufferers and supporters seek help?



Eating Disorder Support: 01494 793223

Beat Adult Helpline: 0345 634 1414

Beat Youthline: 0345 634 7650

Anorexia & Bulimia Care Helpline: 03000 11 12 13

Seed helpline: 01482 718130

Mind Helpine: 0300 123 3393

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