For most people, anorexia is extremely difficult to understand. It is not a diet gone too far or a game played by a young girl to get attention from friends or a member of the family. Anorexia is a psychiatric disorder, not unlike depression or anxiety. Very simply defined, anorexia is self-starvation. Those with this disorder literally starve themselves to a state of severe emaciation, or even death. And the thing is ... once they start, it is very difficult to end the behaviors and go back to normal eating. This disease impacts everything: work, home, health, friendships ... life.
Anorexia symptoms are physical, biological and behavioral. Because dieting is a key part of anorexia, many of the most common symptoms surround food and dieting. A female with anorexia diets obsessively, when she is not overweight. In fact, she may have experienced a recent rapid weight loss -- 15% or more below her normal body weight. Yet, she will constantly complain that she feels "fat," when this is clearly not a reality. Frequent weighing, even several times in one day, is fairly standard. Though dieting is always on her mind, so is the topic of food. It is not unusual for those with anorexia to have an extreme preoccupation with food, calories, nutrition, and/or cooking. As an extension of this, it is not unusual for a person with this disorder to talk about food a great deal.
It is important to detect changes in diet and eating habits. This extends to breakfast, snacks, and most importantly, dinner. Most parents already know how key it is for a family to share dinner together, simply as a bonding or catching-up time with one another. Dinnertime is also an opportunity to watch a child eat. When we say eat, we mean the food needs to actually be consumed. A common anorexia behavior is the ability to not eat, while all the time making others think the opposite. A standard technique is to slip food to the family pet, or hide it in a napkin, to be thrown away later. Often, food is pushed around on the plate, to make it appear as though there is less of it at the end of the meal.
If anorexia is suspected, communication is a good place to start. Talk with the young child or adolescent about general subjects such as school, sports, or friends. These conversations may lead to related topics that may elicit more insight regarding feelings and emotions. Do not expect the child to admit to having an eating disorder, because the truth is, they rarely do. This is not a privacy issue, it is the secrecy and deception that is part of the disease. In some cases, the child may be forthcoming and agree to change her behaviors regarding food, get back on the right track and take better care of her health; but again, probably not.
Of course, this is not true at all. When she actually does consume food, it is not unusual for her to engage in strange food-related behaviors. These include cutting food into little tiny pieces, only eating one food at a time, or placing unusual condiments on food items. Episodes of binge eating can also occur, simply due to a loss of control. Remember, these individuals are hungry, so when they finally give in and eat, it is sometimes very difficult to stop.
Not eating is hard enough on the body, but the problem is, she may also exercise to an extreme degree. As a result of low nutrition and high levels of exercising, she will probably experience amenorrhea, which means loss of her menstrual period. Strangely, though the hair on her head may fall out, she may undergo unusual hair growth on her arms and legs; basically, this is an effort by the body to make itself warm.
Although she may try to convey that she is at the top of the world, depression is often a symptom of anorexia, as is slowness of thought and memory difficulties. Most people feel this way due to the brain's inability to function without adequate nutrition.
If someone you know has anorexia, please encourage them to get help. Inpatient treatment is often required to fully recover from anorexia.
We have treated anorexia for more than 20 years. We know recovery from an eating disorder is absolutely possible. It's happening every day at Remuda Ranch. Based on feedback from patients, families and professionals, the vast majority of our patients remain committed to a life of health, balance and purpose.
For additional information about the treatment of eating disorders, please call to speak to a Counselor at 866-390-5100 or complete a Take the Next Step form and we will contact you with the information you need.