Harvard Mental Health Letter

Treating anorexia nervosa

A multidisciplinary approach is best, but relapses are common.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) reported that hospitalizations for eating disorders have increased in the new millennium. The most common diagnosis was anorexia nervosa, accounting for 37% of hospitalizations in 2005 to 2006, an increase of 17% over those reported for 1999 to 2000. The next most common diagnosis was bulimia nervosa, characterized by binge eating followed by purging, which accounted for 24% of hospitalizations in the year ending 2006.

Anorexia nervosa affects nearly one in 200 Americans in their lives (three-quarters of them female). The term "anorexia" is derived from two Greek words, usually translated as "without appetite" — but that is something of a misnomer. Patients with this disorder do not lose their appetite; they struggle to subdue it. They are simultaneously afraid of gaining weight and convinced they are too fat, even when significantly underweight. As a result, they starve themselves to the point that they put their lives at risk.

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