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Symptoms & Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa

Physical, Behavioral & Emotional Symptoms

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Updated January 16, 2012

Symptoms & Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa

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People who are experiencing anorexia nervosa may exhibit some of the following symptoms and/or warning signs of the disease. Sometimes family members and friends will remark after a diagnosis has been made that they didn't realize how many behaviors and changes were related to the eating disorder. However, anorexia nervosa truly affects all areas of a person's life. It is a disease that primarily affects women and most often begins in early to mid adolescence.

It is important to note that this is not an exhaustive list of symptoms and people who do not have all of the symptoms below may still be struggling with anorexia nervosa. Also, these signs and symptoms are not always specific to anorexia and may reflect other conditions.

Physical Symptoms

Anorexia nervosa is quite literally self-starvation. The physical symptoms are a result of the body being denied essential nutrients, as the body is forced to conserve its resources in an effort to survive. Many of these physical symptoms are symptoms of extremely serious cases of anorexia nervosa. They can also be symptoms of other medical conditions so it is important to be assessed by a physician to determine a correct diagnosis and seek treatment.

  • loss of menstrual period in females post-puberty
  • sensitivity to cold
  • pale, dry skin
  • dry and thinning hair
  • brittle nails
  • lightheadedness or loss of balance (may experience fainting)
  • downy hair all over the body (called lanugo), which is the body's effort to conserve heat
  • low blood pressure and heart rate
  • bruises easily
  • extreme weight loss
  • muscle loss and weakness
  • extreme dehydration
  • brittle bones (osteoporosis)

Behavioral Symptoms

These are signs that are often noticed outwardly by family members and friends of someone who is struggling with anorexia nervosa. They may be noticed somewhat earlier than some of the physical symptoms.

  • talks or thinks about food, weight, calories, and dieting so much it gets in the way of regular conversation
  • desperate to exercise even when inappropriate, such as running in inclement weather or missing other commitments in order to exercise
  • talks about fears of gaining weight or being fat even when losing weight
  • refusal to eat certain foods or entire groups of foods (such as carbohydrates or desserts)
  • strange eating habits or food rituals, such as an insistence on using specific utensils
  • eating unusual or odd food combinations
  • cooks for others, but refuses to eat what is cooked
  • may seem obsessed with cooking, cookbooks, cooking shows on television or other food related topics
  • insistence on wearing cold-weather clothing, even when it is warm outside
  • withdrawal from friends and family
  • may go to great lengths to avoid eating, such as making up excuses about not joining the family for a meal or stating that they have already eaten
  • sudden and extreme changes, such as becoming a vegetarian or refusing to eat non-organic foods, even when that is all that is available
  • denial of hunger
  • extreme perfectionism
  • may hide foods in order to avoid eating them

Emotional Symptoms

Some of these symptoms might be more difficult for someone on the outside to recognize. However, many family members and close friends would be able to assess that their loved one is experiencing some or all of these warning signs.

  • determines self-esteem, worth, or attractiveness by appearance and weight
  • depression
  • strong need for approval
  • anxiety
  • little motivation to engage in relationships or activities
  • easily irritated
  • extremely self-critical

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text Revision). Washington, DC: Author.

Zerbe, K.J. (1995). The Body Betrayed. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books.

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