What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia is an eating disorder generally occurring in young women and characterised by a distorted body image, a fear of obesity, weight gain and an unwillingness to eat. The drive to become thinner or weigh less is actually secondary to the fear associated with loss of control and fears associated with the body. Sufferers continue to restrict food intake, often to the point of starvation, in order to feel a sense of control over their bodies. This obsession is similar to that of an individual with a drug addiction or an alcohol abuse problem.

The issue of body image is quite complex. Regardless of weight, someone with anorexia tends to see themselves as being fat. As such, they continue to starve themselves in order that they might ‘see’ themselves as thin. The problem here is that when they reach the ‘number’ or desired weight, they may still feel overweight and in need of further weight loss. They view the loss of weight as a success and the gaining of weight as a defeat. They associate your weight with your self-worth or self-esteem. The lower their weight, the better they tend to feel about themselves. Unfortunately, the feeling is short-lived.

Below are a few questions to help you determine whether you are suffering from anorexia:

  • Do you have an intense fear of gaining weight, even when underweight?
  • Do you have an intense fear of becoming fat, even when underweight?
  • Do you refuse to maintain body weight appropriate to age, height etc.?
  • Do you deny the seriousness of low body weight?
  • Do you have a problem or distortion in the way you view your body?
  • If you are a woman who has not yet gone through menopause, have you experienced the absence of 3 menstrual cycles?

If you’ve answered, ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you may have a problem with anorexia and may be in need of treatment.

Many people in need of anorexia treatment may:

  • have dry or thinning hair
  • experience the absence of menstruation (in the case of females)
  • appear to have lost weight and be too thin
  • be secretive about their eating
  • try to eat alone
  • grow thin hair all over their body (the result of starvation)
  • eat in a ritualistic manner (cutting food into small pieces, taking small bites, being quiet at mealtimes, chewing very slowly)
  • prepare meals for others, but not eat it themselves
  • appear to be very faint (the result of starvation)
  • possess extensive information about nutrition


Anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric illness. Starvation causes major organs to shut down. Heart attack is the most common cause of death.

Osteoporosis is another danger of anorexia. Low calcium intake is part of the problem, but the development of amenorrhea (no longer menstruating) prevents the body from absorbing calcium.


How do I get help for myself or my loved one?

The first step in getting help is finding out whether you have a problem. A trained clinical psychologist can effectively perform a professional assessment, which will identify whether you have any problem areas, and will recommend the treatment most appropriate for you if necessary.

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