Anorexia Nervosa | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of anorexia nervosa?

While each child may experience symptoms differently, some of the most common signs of anorexia include the following:

  • low body weight (under 85 percent of the normal weight for the child’s height and age)
  • intense fear of weight gain, even as they are losing weight
  • distorted view of body weight, size, or shape; see themselves as too fat or normal sized, even when very underweight.
  • refusal to maintain normal body weight
  • in females, absence of three consecutive menstrual cycles without another cause
  • excessive physical activity
  • denies feelings of hunger
  • preoccupation with food preparation
  • bizarre eating behaviors (e.g., using a fork to eat raisins or cutting food into very small pieces)

Other symptoms may include:

  • dry skin
  • dehydration
  • abdominal pain or bloating
  • constipation
  • fatigue
  • hypothermia(problems maintaining normal body temperature) and feeling cold when others are hot
  • emaciation
  • development of lanugo (fine, downy body hair)
  • yellowing of the skin
  • stress fractures

If your child is struggling with anorexia, they may also be socially withdrawn, irritable, moody or depressed.

Eating disorders are illnesses of denial and secrecy; they're often very difficult to track down. So family members and friends shouldn't feel badly about not figuring out right away if their loved one has a problem.

That being said, there are some signs you can look for:

  • unexplained weight loss
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • fatigue
  • irritability or moodiness
  • going to the bathroom often, especially after meals
  • cutting food into tiny pieces and pushing it around the plate

Also be on the lookout for major change in eating or exercise behavior.

What causes anorexia nervosa?

It’s hard to pinpoint the cause of anorexia nervosa. The condition usually begins with dieting, but gradually progresses to extreme and unhealthy weight loss. There are several factors thought to be associated with anorexia:

  • Social attitudes toward body appearance — often unrealistic — are believed to play a large role.
  • Adolescents who develop anorexia are more likely to come from families with a history of weight problems, physical illness and mental health problems, such as depression or substance abuse. Genetics may also play a role.
  • Often teens with anorexia come from families with high levels of stress, poor patterns of communication, unrealistically high expectations and underdeveloped problem-solving skills.
  • Sports or activities in which leanness is emphasized (e.g., ballet, running or wrestling) and sports in which scoring is partly subjective (e.g., skating or gymnastics) are associated with a higher incidence of eating disorders.
  • Teens with anorexia often have other mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), affective (or mood) disorders and problems with substance abuse. They may also be dependent, immature in their emotional development and likely to isolate themselves from others.