Introduction 

Anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health condition. It is an eating disorder in which people keep their body weight as low as possible.

People with anorexia usually do this by restricting the amount of food they eat, making themselves vomit and exercising excessively. 

The condition often develops out of an anxiety about body shape and weight that originates from a fear of being fat or a desire to be thin. Many people with anorexia have a distorted image of themselves, thinking that they're fat when they're not.

Anorexia most commonly affects girls and women, although it has become more common in boys and men in recent years. On average, the condition first develops at around the age of 16 to 17.

Read more about the causes of anorexia.

Signs and symptoms of anorexia

People with anorexia often go to great lengths to hide their behaviour from family and friends by lying about what they have eaten, or by pretending to have eaten earlier.

Signs that someone may have anorexia or another eating disorder include:

  • missing meals, eating very little or avoiding eating any fatty foods
  • obsessively counting calories in food 
  • leaving the table immediately after eating so they can vomit
  • taking appetite suppressants, laxatives or diuretics (medication that helps remove fluid from the body)
  • repeatedly weighing themselves or checking their body in the mirror
  • physical problems, such as feeling lightheaded or dizzy, hair loss or dry skin

Anorexia can also be associated with other psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, alcohol misuse and self-harm.

Read more about the symptoms of anorexia.

Getting help

People with anorexia often don't seek help, perhaps because they're afraid or don't recognise they have a problem. Many have hidden their condition for a long time – sometimes years.

The most important first step is for someone with anorexia to realise that they need help and want to get better.

If you suspect someone you know has anorexia, you should try to talk to them about your worries and encourage them to seek help.

This can be a very difficult conversation because they may be defensive and refuse to accept they have a problem. But it's important not to criticise or pressure them as this can make things worse.

You may want to seek advice from an eating disorder support group such as Beat on how best to broach the subject.

If you think you may have anorexia, try to seek help as soon as possible. You could start by talking to someone you trust, such as someone in your family or a friend, and perhaps ask them to go with you to see your GP.

Read more about Eating disorders: advice for parents and Supporting someone with an eating disorder.

Treating anorexia

Before anorexia can be treated, a physical, psychological and social needs assessment will need to be carried out by the GP or an eating disorders specialist to help determine the most suitable care plan.

In most cases, treatment will involve a combination of psychological therapy and individually tailored advice on eating and nutrition to help you gain weight safely.

A range of different healthcare professionals will usually be involved in your care, such as GPs, psychiatrists, specialist nurses and dietitians.

Most people are able to be treated on an outpatient basis, which means you can go home between appointments. More serious cases are treated in hospital or specialist eating disorder clinics.

Read more about diagnosing anorexia and treating anorexia.

Outlook

It can take several years of treatment to fully recover from anorexia and relapses are common. For example, a woman may relapse if she tries to lose weight gained during pregnancy.

Around half of people with anorexia will continue to have some level of eating problem despite treatment.

If anorexia remains unsuccessfully treated for a long time, a number of serious further problems can develop. These can include fragile bones (osteoporosis), infertility, an irregular heartbeat and other heart problems.

Despite being an uncommon condition, anorexia is one of the leading causes of mental health-related deaths. This can be because of the effects of malnutrition or as a result of suicide.

Read more about the potential complications of anorexia.

Anorexia nervosa

Professor Janet Treasure, director of the eating disorder unit at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, talks about anorexia nervosa, including how to spot the symptoms and how the eating disorder can affect a person's life

Media last reviewed: 18/03/2013

Next review due: 18/03/2015

Overcoming eating disorders

Find out about eating disorders and the support available for people who have problems with food

Mental health services

Find out what mental health services exist and how to access them

Page last reviewed: 16/04/2014

Next review due: 16/04/2016