Anorexia is an eating disorder affecting 0.5 - 1% of young women. It also affects young men but to a much lesser extent. This is a distressing illness, which can be severe, longstanding and even fatal.
Anorexia can be diagnosed when the body weight is at least 15% below the expected weight or when the body mass index (BMI) is less than 17.5. and there is no other identifiable cause for the weight loss. It is caused by starving the body of calories and there is a significant distortion of the body image. People affected by this disorder fear putting on weight, and think that they are bigger than they are. This altered self image can be extremely persistent and difficult to change.
Anorexia can start at any age although it commonly begins during the teens. Peer and societal pressures to be slim are a factor, but there are often contributory family and relationship problems. Management needs to focus on establishing a normal eating pattern. This can be achieved by the support of a dietician trained in the management of eating disorders. Psychotherapy and counselling will also be required to deal with any psychological problems.
Bulimia nervosa is more common, thought to affect 1-2% of adult women in the UK. It consists of binge (compulsive) eating, often followed by self-induced vomiting, or purging with laxatives. It can remain a secret disease as the body weight remains normal. Again it is a pervasive, distressing illness which can persist for many years accompanied by feelings of guilt, low esteem and self disgust. There is usually a deep fear of gaining weight and the bingeing might be offset by alternating with starving and excessive exercise.
Sometimes women swing from anorexia to bulimia.
These illnesses can completely take over the lives of the sufferer, their family and close friends. Depression can co-exist with these illnesses and antidepressants may be helpful.
This article published on
01 July 2005
Next review date 7/1/2013
Stomach and digestion