Anorexia is a Greek word meaning ‘loss of appetite’. In medical terms, it can refer to any cause or condition that leads to a loss of appetite, such as being ill or taking a medication known to suppress appetite.
The term ‘anorexia nervosa’ can be roughly translated as ‘loss of appetite due to anxiety’. It is specifically used in medical literature to refer to the eating disorder discussed here. But in popular culture, the word anorexia has become an accepted abbreviation for this.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder and a serious mental health condition. People with anorexia have problems with eating. They are very anxious about their weight and keep it as low as possible by strictly controlling and limiting what they eat. Many people with anorexia will also exercise excessively to lose weight, especially after they have eaten.
It is thought that people with anorexia are so concerned about their weight because they:
Even when a person with anorexia becomes extremely underweight, they still feel compelled to lose more weight. Although people with anorexia avoid eating food whenever they can, they also develop an obsession with eating and diet. For example, they may obsessively count the calories in different types of foods even though they have no intention of eating it.
Some people with anorexia will also binge, i.e. they eat a lot of food in a short space of time. They then try to get rid of the food from their body by vomiting or using laxatives. The symptoms of anorexia usually begin gradually, such as adopting a restrictive diet; they then often spiral out of control quickly. Despite being an uncommon condition, anorexia is the leading cause of mental health-related deaths. Around 20-30% of people with anorexia do not respond to treatment, and around 5% will die from complications caused by malnutrition
Most cases of anorexia develop in girls and women. One in every 200 women is affected Symptoms of anorexia usually first develop during the teenage years, at the average age of 15. But the condition can develop at any time, including childhood.
Anorexia also affects 1 in every 2,000 men. Some experts are concerned that the number of men with the condition may be increasing.
The cause of anorexia is unknown, but most experts believe the condition results from a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. The long-term malnutrition associated with anorexia can cause a range of serious complications, such as:
One of the biggest challenges in treating anorexia is that it is a condition characterised by self-denial. Many people with anorexia refuse to admit, or are unable to grasp, that there is anything wrong with them or their behaviour.
If the person is persuaded to seek help, it usually takes five to six years of treatment before they make a complete recovery, and relapses are common. Anorexia nervosa is the most difficult psychiatric illness from which to recover fully.
Treatment for anorexia usually involves talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, which aim to change the person’s attitudes and behaviour. Nutritional support is also offered to help them gain weight safely.
Recent figures show that the number of young girls admitted to hospital suffering from anorexia, has risen by 80% in a decade. It is widely believed that much of this can be attributed to the preponderance of photographs of super-slim celebrities in magazines.