Anorexia Nervosa

What Is It?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that affects about 1 in 100-200 girls or women in the United States. A person with this disorder limits eating and by definition weighs at least 15% less than his or her ideal weight. At least 90% of cases are in women and the disorder usually begins in adolescence. The weight loss may delay the onset of menstruation or stop it once it has started, Anorexia nervosa rarely occurs before puberty or after age 40. And, although relatively rare, it can occur in men.

A person with this disorder fears being overweight. She may be completely convinced that she weighs too much despite what the scale shows or what other people say. To achieve or maintain leanness, she may exercise obsessively or use laxatives. Because a super-restrictive diet requires exquisite control, she may become extremely careful, inhibited and controlled in other areas of life as well. For example, she may retreat from social contacts or may perform ritual behaviors.

The term "anorexia" literally means having a lack of appetite, but this is misleading because people with the disorder usually have a strong appetite or actively suppress a craving for food. They diet to the point of starvation, and they may even experience pride stemming from the strength implied by such self-denial. The disorder is defined not by whether a person feels hunger but by how much weight he or she has lost.

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