Anorexia: What Is It?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by severe weight loss, a significantly low body weight, intense fear of getting fat, and a distorted body image that drives an otherwise high-functioning person—usually a young woman—to starve herself. Anorexics keep themselves underweight by eating sparsely and infrequently, as well as purging—voiding food by induced vomiting, laxative use, etc.—and exercising intensely, often without recognizing that their actions are unhealthy or that their perceptions of their bodies are not normal.

Anorexia usually manifests during adolescence and is diagnosed overwhelmingly among females, though one in 10 of those diagnosed are male, and the actual prevalence could be higher as symptoms of starvation in young men are less obvious than in young women. Adolescents and young adults with anorexia are often high-achievers and perfectionists—successful in school and popular with peers—making it difficult for parents and other adults to see how troubled they are. But anorexia is an extremely serious condition—a life-threatening psychiatric disorder that, untreated, leads to fatal medical problems and a high rate of suicide. The earlier it is treated, the better the odds of the patient recovering, and avoiding future relapse.