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What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that can cause kids to starve themselves. Children and teenagers with anorexia believe they are too fat, even though everyone else sees them as way too thin. To maintain a very low weight, they eat very little and often throw up on purpose or exercise intensely. They may not understand that that their opinion of their body isn’t normal and that their choices are not healthy.  

Anorexia usually begins during the teenage years. Because children with anorexia often do well in school and are popular, it can be hard for parents and other adults to see there’s a problem. Girls are diagnosed much more often than boys, but that could be partly because anorexia is harder to spot in boys. 

Anorexia is extremely serious. The earlier it is treated, the better. If it’s not treated, it can lead to fatal medical problems or suicide. 

What are the symptoms of anorexia nervosa?

The key indication that a child or teenager has anorexia is if they look in the mirror and see themselves as too fat when everyone else sees them as way too thin. Specific symptoms include: 

  • Extreme weight loss  
  • Weighing much less than is normal for their age  
  • Being very afraid of getting fat 
  • Refusing to eat a normal amount of food or going on extreme diets 
  • Seeing weight as a very important part of their identity 
  • Making themselves vomit or using laxatives (this is called purging) 
  • Exercising too much 
  • Weak nails or hair loss  
  • Constipation  
  • Not having regular periods  

How is anorexia diagnosed?

Anorexia is a diagnosed by a doctor. They look at the child’s weight and compare it to what is average for their age. If the child’s weight is 15% or more below average, the doctor will look for further signs of anorexia. The doctor will try to learn if the child: 

  • Is very worried about gaining weight 
  • Is scared of being fat, even though they’re so thin 
  • Thinks their body looks different than it does  
  • Doesn’t believe they have a serious problem  
  • Doesn’t have regular periods  

There are two different kinds of anorexia diagnosis. One is the restrictive type, where kids eat very little. The other is the binging/purging type, where kids limit food and also keep weight down by vomiting or using laxatives. 

What are the risk factors for anorexia?

Girls are ten times more likely to be diagnosed with anorexia. Other risk factors include: 

  • A parent or sibling with anorexia 
  • Doing activities that focus on being thin, such as modeling and sports 
  • Having an anxiety disorder 
  • Tending to obsess over things 

How is anorexia nervosa treated?

The first goal of anorexia is to get the child to a healthy weight. This could require hospitalization or a residential program if the child’s health is in danger. Treatment works best when the disorder is caught early.  

The most successful therapy for children and teenagers with anorexia is family-based therapy. When the whole family participates in therapy, they learn how to support the child in developing healthier eating habits at home. The longer a child stays at a healthy weight, the less likely it is that they will experience anorexia again. 

There are no medications for anorexia. However, a child may be prescribed antidepressants if they also have another disorder like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Treating these disorders with medication can make the therapy for anorexia more successful. 

Risks for other disorders

Children can have serious medical problems if they don’t receive the nutrition they need. Even if they don’t look extremely thin, they can have: 

  • Anemia, a blood condition that can make them feel tired or weak 
  • Kidney trouble  
  • Thin bones that break easily 
  • Problems with hormones and electrolytes 

At worst, anorexia can make the heart stop suddenly, causing death. 

Anorexia also usually affects a child’s social life and their relationship with their family. As a result, suicide is a serious risk. 

This guide was last reviewed or updated on December 12, 2023.