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Maybe the best-known of all eating disorders, anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health condition that affects people of all ages, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds, and races. Despite this, anorexia nervosa treatment is normally needed first during early adolescence and among young women and girls. Among mental health diseases, including eating disorders, anorexia nervosa is the most dangerous, leading to a litany of negative health consequences and even death at a greater rate than any other disorder.

Because of this, families searching for anorexia nervosa treatment centers near themor far away should take great care to understand the different aspects of anorexia nervosa in adolescence and the treatment options available. Before starting on treatment, it’s always wise to learn more about the disorder and how to spot it. Here’s we’ve gone over many of the questions we most frequently hear about anorexia from our clients and their families.

Anorexia Nervosa Commonly Asked Questions

What is anorexia nervosa?

Eating disorders are very serious mental health conditions that include both medical and psychiatric aspects. Perhaps the most well-known type of eating disorder is anorexia nervosa. As an eating disorder, anorexia nervosa contains some of the most classic symptoms. ​People requiring anorexia nervosa treatment normally greatly restrict their food and caloric intake, avoid meals and eating, engage in frequent diets, and in severe cases are malnourished and even emaciated. Excessive exercise frequently accompanies food restrictions. Anorexia nervosa recovery can require extensive psychiatric and medical treatment.

People of all genders and nearly any age can develop an eating disorder. In recent years, anorexia nervosa has been observed in children as young as age 6, however. The normal onset is age 14 – 21, which of course are crucial developmental years, necessitating adolescent anorexia nervosa treatment in certain cases. When an adolescent has been diagnosed, it’s normally advisable to look for a treatment that’s specially designed for this age group.

While it’s true that females are more commonly diagnosed than males and people often begin showing signs of an eating disorder in adolescence, it’s also very possible for the disorder to present in adulthood in both women and men. Current studies suggest that up to 5 percent of women in the US have had anorexia nervosa at some point in their life. Additionally, anorexia nervosa is the 3rd most common chronic illness among teen girls – a striking figure considering how extreme the health risks associated with it can be.

Does every case of anorexia nervosa look the same?

No. Although the psychiatric community’s manual, the DSM-V, includes a clause stating that a person has to become severely underweight to make a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, it is possible to restrict food intake and experience body dissatisfaction without meeting that clause. In some situations, the person in question might begin restricting at a higher weight and although they lose weight, never become medically underweight. Or variations in their metabolism may prevent this. These cases are collectively called “atypical” anorexia nervosa. Although it’s less recognized than the “typical” type, atypical anorexia nervosa also carries dangerous complications. Nutritional deficiencies caused by food restriction can cause anemia, seizures, organ damage, gastrointestinal problems, and other serious health concerns.

Can people be cured with anorexia nervosa treatment?

While most eating disorder treatment professionals don’t like to use the word “cured,” many people with eating disorders can enjoy a successful long-term recovery. With early intervention and a personalized treatment approach that matches the patient’s specific needs, recovery rates are high.In intensive cases, residential treatment programs might be necessary, but anorexia nervosa treatment centers nearby that offer a day treatment program may be a better option for adolescents who want to remain in school during treatment.After treatment, the chance of relapse greatly diminishes when teens have access to aftercare and a strong support system at home.

Are there medications for anorexia nervosa?

Not really. Although certain medications like antidepressants, SSRIs, and anti-anxiety medications are often prescribed for co-occurring disorders like depression and anxiety, there are no effective medications designed solely for anorexia nervosa. One of the difficulties in prescribing medication for someone with an eating disorder is that many forms of medication suppress the appetite, which is of course counterproductive. Still, if a person is being treated for a co-occurring disorder that influences their eating habits, the care team should be made aware. Co-occurring disorders usually need to be treated simultaneously as anorexia nervosa, to prevent eventual relapses, so a balance must be struck between the two.

What are the main signs of anorexia nervosa should I look out for?

Parents concerned about the adolescent onset of anorexia nervosa should keep their eyes out for several telltale signs. Most prominent will be a disordered body image (in that the teenager will be dissatisfied with her weight or convinced she is fat despite evidence to the contrary) and an avoidance of meals.  People with anorexia nervosa will normally avoid eating as much as possible, even to the point of starving themselves. This behavior is often compounded by frequent dieting or avoiding certain kinds of food. Anorexia nervosa often includes compulsive exercising or the abuse of laxatives or diuretics.

Are there other behavioral signals that my loved one is experiencing anorexia nervosa?

Aside from food restriction, negative body image, and weight loss, there are certain signs that a person is struggling with an eating disorder. A person with anorexia nervosa is often visibly uncomfortable at mealtimes, even if they eat normally at the meal. Extreme weight loss is an obvious sign of anorexia nervosa, so the individual might start wearing loose-fitting clothes to hide their weight loss. Heavy, baggy sweaters or coats serve this purpose and are also a sign that the person is always feeling cold, another symptom of weight loss.

Counting calories to an extreme degree is very common among people with anorexia nervosa. Noticing that a person counts the calories from every sip of lemonade or stick of gum is a sign that they are unhealthily focused on them. Mood changes are also common; we’ve already mentioned that depression and anxiety are common co-occurring disorders, and they can worsen as anorexia nervosa progresses. In practice, this means the person might become more withdrawn and suffer social anxiety and discomfort in social situations, especially when food is involved. Energy levels usually drop out of a combination of depression and malnutrition. Irritation and attempts to evade the subject are usual if a person with anorexia nervosa is questioned about their weight loss or eating habits – this is tied to a sense of shame about the disordered eating behaviors.

In previous editions of the DSM, the stoppage of menstruation was mentioned as a diagnostic cue. This was changed in the current edition, to include boys and men (as well as prepubescent girls), but it is a common sign of anorexia nervosa in adolescent and adult women. Of course, this is not an obvious sign, but medical professionals may inquire about this if they suspect the presence of anorexia nervosa.

Can a person have anorexia nervosa and another eating disorder at the same time?

Strictly speaking, no, but this is a bit misleading. There is a binging/purging form of anorexia nervosa that is separate from the restricting type. It resembles bulimia nervosa, although it is interspersed with restrictions that bulimia nervosa normally isn’t. Bulimia nervosa patients are not necessarily underweight, although they are usually “on a diet” and dissatisfied with their weight.

People with anorexia nervosa also sometimes change their disordered eating patterns, although this is rare. A person with anorexia might occasionally binge eat out of hunger, then feel ashamed and panicked about the binge eating episode. Afterward, vomiting or another purging form like excessive exercise is common, as is increased restriction in the days following the episode. People have received multiple eating disorder diagnoses, but usually anorexia nervosa is the primary focus in treatment.

If a loved one is intentionally vomiting or fasting after meals but only some of the time, should parents be worried?

Yes. Anytime someone feels the need to purge after a meal, whether that means fasting or self-induced vomiting and laxative use – they are likely dealing with underlying psychological issues surrounding food, their body shape, and weight. While this doesn’t necessarily mean they are showing clear signs of either anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, it could be an atypical form of either disorder, and the family needs to consider reaching out for help.

Wrapping Up

Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health disorder that can ruin lives, but once it’s demystified, it’s easy to see that it can be treated. Using a combination of therapy, behavioral modification, and nutritional education, a full recovery is achievable. Modern anorexia nervosa treatment centers offer residential and outpatient treatment programs, in many cases specifically geared toward adolescents. These facilities include comfortable, home-like bedrooms and living facilities fully stocked kitchens and dining facilities, movement rooms, educational facilities, and much more.

If your daughter or an adolescent you love is showing these signs or symptoms, don’t hesitate.  Reach out to your doctor or an eating disorder specialist as soon as possible.  Anorexia nervosa can be beaten – it’s best to start early.


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.