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Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health condition that can affect people of all ages. Despite the growing recognition that anorexia nervosa can strike in later years or resurface after a successful recovery, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa most often develop during the adolescent years. Likewise, although young men develop anorexia nervosa, young women are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

The condition is considered very serious as it has one of the highest death rates of any mental health disorder. This makes anorexia nervosa in adolescence a difficult issue for families to manage and makes finding the best treatment an important first step. Luckily, with the help of a strong support system and comprehensive treatment, long-term anorexia recovery is possible. Keep reading to learn more about the condition, its causes, and what treatment options are available.

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by an attempt to control one’s body weight and shape by restricting the number of calories consumed each day. People with anorexia nervosa often become obsessed with calories and may also spend much of their time focusing on dieting. Because people with anorexia nervosa tend to eat so little, they tend to lose weight rapidly and have difficulty restoring weight without extensive treatment. Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa are also often associated with malnutrition. This can result from a long-term restriction of calories and vital nutrients.

If left untreated, malnutrition can cause serious complications in every major organ system in the body. Over time, these complications can result in chronic fatigue, muscle damage, dental health issues, abnormal heart rhythms, gastrointestinal problems, and more. Anorexia nervosa in adolescence can present with a variety of different signs and symptoms, depending on the severity of the condition.

Some of the most common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include:

  • A low body mass index based on an individual’s age, height, and stature
  • Amenorrhea (loss of the menstruation cycle, yellowing skin, brittle hair, and nails)
  • Obsession with dieting and exercise
  • Lanugo (a condition where soft, fine hairs begin to grow all over the body and face)
  • Preoccupation with food, recipes, and cooking. People with anorexia nervosa often cook elaborate meals for others without eating themselves
  • Excessive exercise even in events of illness, inclement weather, etc.
  • Food rituals such as eating foods in certain orders, cutting all foods into tiny pieces, refusing to eat around others
  • Pronounced body dissatisfaction or lack of recognition of their body weight (even when severely underweight, people with anorexia nervosa perceive themselves as overweight or “fat”)
  • Feeling uncomfortable at meals or when presented with food
  • Wearing baggy clothes (to hide the body’s shape)
  • Always feeling cold
  • Anemia
  • Anxiety, depression, and insomnia

Many of the background symptoms of anorexia are present in other kinds of eating disorders – people with bulimia nervosa, for example, share symptoms of body dissatisfaction and discomfort around food, as well as excessive exercise and dieting. For this reason, the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa make a point to differentiate between purging activities. It is possible for a person to have both disorders at the same time, or to switch between them.

There is also a form of the disorder known as atypical anorexia nervosa. One of the criteria for making a diagnosis of anorexia is that the person reaches an extremely low body weight for their age and height. In cases of atypical anorexia nervosa, the person still restricts food intake and generally loses weight, but does not become underweight. They may start from a higher body weight, or their metabolism may prevent them from reaching too low a weight. IN some cases, people with atypical anorexia nervosa may cycle between binge eating and anorexic behaviors. Although they may not reach an excessively low weight, people with atypical anorexia nervosa experience many of the same health consequences, like malnutrition.

What Are the Risk Factors for Adolescent Anorexia Nervosa?

Eating disorders in adolescence are very common. In fact, most women first develop the early signs of eating disorders in their early teen years. Unfortunately, due to television and film portrayals of people with common eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, many parents have misconceptions about what causes these serious mental health disorders to develop.

Like virtually every mental health disorder, anorexia nervosa can develop due to a wide variety of different factors. Researchers believe that eating disorders most often develop due to a combination of genetic, psychological, cultural, biochemical, and environmental factors. While this can make it more difficult to pinpoint the specifics behind the cause of eating disorders, the available information that we do have makes it much easier to identify those who may be more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.


Genetics may predispose some teens to develop eating disorders over their peers. Research shows that anorexia nervosa can run in families and if a parent has previously had or currently has an eating disorder, their children are more likely to have a similar condition. Additionally, identical twins are more likely to have an eating disorder versus fraternal twins or other siblings. There are also some indications that neurochemistry in the cingulate cortex and other parts of the brain influence a person’s self-awareness and eating habits – which of course directly impact anorexia nervosa behaviors. However, these genetic influences are rarely the sole cause of anorexia nervosa.


Many psychological factors can contribute to eating disorders in adolescence. Psychological disorders often contribute to each other in the same person; similar therapeutic techniquesare often used to treat those who also deal with symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other co-occurring disorders. Some other common psychological signs of teenagers and eating disorders include:

  • Perfectionism
  • Low self-esteem
  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulties coping in stressful situations or expressing emotions
  • Feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness
  • Negative body image
  • Fears of abandonment
  • PTSD
  • Mood disorders such as borderline personality and depression


Environmental factors can also play a huge role in the development of eating disorders in adolescence. Common environmental factors of teenagers and eating disorders include:

  • Trauma including physical or sexual abuse
  • Low self-esteem
  • Peer pressure
  • Family or romantic relationship problems
  • Bullying
  • A difficult childhood
  • Participation in certain activities that may focus on weight and body image. These may include wrestling, gymnastics, modeling, running, and dancing.
  • Social media
  • Influence by advertising and other media that promotes a certain body image
  • Having relatives who have an eating disorder
  • Being put on a diet at an early age

Anorexia Nervosa Recovery: Which Treatment Options Are Available for Adolescents?

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa require specialized treatment in order to achieve long-term recovery. For younger people, it is important to find a treatment program that will address the special needs of navigating life as a teen. Popular treatment options include:

Psychological Therapy

This is the cornerstone of eating disorder treatment programs. Therapy can last for a few months or years and is designed to help clients normalize their eating patterns, exchange their disordered eating habits for nourishing ones, develop behavioral coping skills, and more. Treatment at an eating disorder treatment center almost always contains extensive psychotherapy sessions between the client and a therapist. Aside from individual one-on-one talk therapy sessions, some of the most common types of therapy for eating disorders include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Family-Based Therapy, and group therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a form of talk therapy where an individual speaks with a therapist in an effort to identify disordered thoughts and emotions. By promoting self-awareness and mindfulness, CBT can be very effective in replacing eating disorder behaviors with healthy ones. It’s perhaps the most effective way to treat eating disorders.

Family therapy also plays a huge role in successful long-term recovery, especially with adolescents. After completing a residential anorexia nervosa treatment program, the patient needs a lot of support from their family emotionally and in terms of meal planning. Family sessions can educate the parents and other family members on how to provide this support, while also bringing them closer to the former client.

Group therapy is very well known, especially from depictions in movies about substance abuse, but it is part of most mental health treatment programs for a good reason; it’s cathartic and effective in producing breakthroughs. Many people who’ve graduated from anorexia nervosa treatment programs point to group therapy sessions as the most impactful experiences during their time in treatment. Opening up is easier when a client is with peers who understand first-hand their struggles with anorexia nervosa.


While medications cannot cure an eating disorder, they can be beneficial to anorexia nervosa recovery. Often used in combination with regular therapy sessions, adolescents with eating disorders may be prescribed antidepressants and other medications to help treat some symptoms, as well as co-occurring disorders that could hinder recovery.

Nutrition Education

Virtually all treatment programs also focus on nutrition education for clients and their families. Normalizing eating healthy foods, and eating to satiety, are key factors in overcoming anorexia nervosa in the long run. Nutritionists can help clients plan meals and design weight restoration plans. The common goals of nutrition education include understanding how food affects the body, establishing regular eating patterns, how to avoid fad dieting, and more.

Find Anorexia Nervosa Treatment Centers Near You

Looking for comprehensive anorexia treatment centers near you? At Clementine, we offer a safe, welcoming, and home-like setting for teens, based in major cities all across the country. And with the highest level of medical and psychiatric care available outside of a hospital setting, parents can rest easy knowing their children are in good hands. Call or click to reach our admissions specialists and get started on recovery today.


Melissa Spann, PhD, LMHC, CEDS-S

Melissa Orshan Spann, PhD, LMHC, RTY 200, is Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, overseeing the clinical operations and programming for over 50 programs across the U.S. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and clinical supervisor as well as an accomplished presenter and passionate clinician who has spent her career working in the eating disorder field in higher levels of care. She is a member of the Academy for Eating Disorders and the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals where she serves on the national certification committee, supervision faculty, and is on the board of her local chapter. She received her doctoral degree from Drexel University, master’s degree from the University of Miami, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.