understanding anorexia nervosa

Dying to be Thin: Understanding the Impact of Anorexia Nervosa

Worldwide, eating disorders are estimated to affect approximately 8.4% of the female, and 2.2% of the male population, with the data suggesting that these figures are increasing. In Australia, it is estimated that approximately 4% of the population are suffering with an eating disorder at any given time. Eating disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterised by an individual’s unhealthy eating habits. This may include a distorted relationship with food and an unhealthy preoccupation with eating, exercise and/or body shape. There are several different types of eating disorders, each with different symptoms and defining characteristics. This post is aimed at helping people in understanding the impact of anorexia nervosa, as it is so often misunderstood.


Anorexia nervosa is still misunderstood

Most people have probably heard of anorexia (Anorexia nervosa). They probably envision an individual starving themselves to maintain a slender physique, bordering on emaciation (think supermodels of the 90s). Some may even assume that such individuals think they “look good”. This is a dangerous misconception, that patients with anorexia “just want to be skinny”. Eating disorders like anorexia are about far more than just the desire to be thin. Being thin (even extremely thin) on its own is insufficient to constitute a diagnosis of anorexia. While severely low body weight is a main feature of anorexia, so is body image distortion accompanied by an intense fear of weight gain, which manifests through deliberately depriving one’s body of food.


Impact on physical health and wellbeing

It makes sense that physiologically, the most common problems associated with anorexia come from malnutrition from restricting caloric intake. These issues include low bone density, weakened hair and nails, dried and yellowed skin, low energy, slower breathing rate, damage to organs including the heart and brain (which in severe cases can result in organ failure).


Impact on mental health and wellbeing

Unfortunately, anorexia has a substantial impact not only on an individual’s physical health, but also their mental health and emotional wellbeing. Arguably one of the more physically impactful eating disorders, patients suffering from anorexia account for approximately 3% of all patients suffering from an eating disorder. This is particularly concerning given research has consistently found anorexia to be associated with the highest mortality rate of all mental health conditions (both in Australia and globally). Other psychiatric comorbidities, such as depression and anxiety are commonly seen in anorexia cases. Mood may be impacted by the lack of vitamin intake, resulting in irritability and over time, potentially compromising relationships. Compulsive fear of weight gain and corresponding behaviours such as skipping meals can lead to withdrawal from social situations, limiting social contact and lessening their sense of belonging, which may have further ill consequences on mental health. Additionally, the preoccupation with appearance and distorted self-image typically associated with eating disorders such as anorexia can serve to worsen mental health symptoms such as depression and further reduce low self-esteem.


What’s more, is the distorted perception of the self and other behavioural features of anorexia (e.g., being secretive about food intake) can interfere with the individual’s recovery, with denial very common among such patients, which effectively delays treatment. Given the substantial implications of anorexia on an individual’s quality of life, seeking treatment for this disorder is incredibly important to minimise further physical deterioration.


To find out more about support for eating disorders, click here Support for Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues | Butterfly Foundation.

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