Recognizing the Signs of Anorexia

02/06/2013 04:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2013

Anorexia nervosa is one of the eating disorders that plague an estimated 8 million Americans -- both male and female. The statistics are startling: The mortality rate of anorexia is 12 times higher than all other causes of death in 15- to 24-year-old women; and 20 percent of individuals who suffer from this disease will die from complications of the eating disorder, including suicide and heart conditions.[1]


Simply put, anorexia nervosa is a mental illness associated with starvation. An anorexic will severely limit his or her food intake in order to gain control over weight. While you might picture a frail, skin-and-bones individual when thinking of anorexia, the reality is that many people who suffer from the disease do not display outward symptoms. Initial signs of anorexia will not appear physically.

In fact, in my experience most anorexics look and appear to function normally, which can make identifying the signs and symptoms of the disease challenging. Like many addictions, anorexia nervosa is a psychological disorder with physical manifestations, and therefore, early signs of the disease will likely be more psychological in nature.

Parents, teachers, coaches and friends of preteen, teenage and college-aged girls should be especially familiar with the following signs and symptoms of anorexia:

  • Obsession with weight: expressing feeling "fat" or "overweight" even though they may be within normal, healthy weight range;
  • Isolation, depression, insecurity, perfectionism, anxiety, self-consciousness, irritability, avoidance of social situations;
  • Extreme exercise regimen and obsession over caloric intake;
  • Dry or yellowed skin, hair loss, brittle nails and fatigue.

An estimated 90 percent of anorexics are female; only 5 to 15 percent are male. This deadly disease is also most common among upper-class Caucasians.

Individuals suffering from eating disorders and other food-related addictions often try to hide their behavior. An individual who has anorexia nervosa will not necessarily avoid food altogether, and it isn't uncommon to see an anorexic who regularly goes grocery shopping or cooks.

If you suspect a loved one is suffering from anorexia, do not ignore the signs. Seek help from a professional.


[1] The Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders, "Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources," published September 2002, revised October 2003.

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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.