What is anorexia? Symptoms, causes, treatments and help

Picky eating is one thing, feeling too sick to eat is another, but when is a lack of nutrition a problem? [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Eating disorders vary and can consist of other underlying conditions recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition [DSM-V]
  • People may experience anorexia as a result of body dysmorphia, anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or autism spectrum disorders [ASDs]
  • Telling someone who has issues concerning diet or appetite that they need to eat more or less does not encourage them to do so, but it can, in fact, encourage them to continue their existing habits


This edition of Disability Support Guide highlights the symptoms, causes and support options available for people living with anorexia. Anorexia nervosa is characterised by an aversion to eating, a perception of low body weight as an achievement and a fear of feeling ‘lesser’ through gaining weight. The etymology or ‘original source of terminology’ for the condition stems from the Greek phrase for ‘nervous absence of appetite.’

If you or someone you love is experiencing an eating disorder, it is important to note that they are incredibly focused on food, despite their physical condition and restricted diet. Speaking disparagingly about a person with anorexia nervosa may enable their self-worth to be fully realised through the negative outcomes on their body.

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa

Symptoms of anorexia nervosa are separate from other disorders or condition which may impact diet, such as:

Autism Spectrum Disorders

People with ASDs may feel that certain foods are uncomfortable, with many people who have texture or taste preferences called ‘picky eaters,’ preferring foods which they are habitually familiar with.

Anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders may play a role in diet and appetite disorders, as the possibility of eating in front of someone may bring to mind traumatic memories of bullying, body-shaming or social anxiety. For people who have overcome an eating disorder, the prospect of eating in front of another person may still be a difficult thing to come to terms with.


Outside of other potential comorbid conditions, anorexia nervosa symptoms are:

  • Low body weight
  • A consistent diminished appetite
  • Irregular or intermittent menstruation, with possible ‘spotting’
  • Dizziness
  • Delayed puberty or growth in adolescents with anorexia nervosa
  • Low body temperature
  • Anxiety or depression related to physical self-perception
  • Bulimia or schemes for eating without weight gain

Probable causes of anorexia nervosa

In a similar vein to obsessive-compulsive personality disorder [OCPD], patterns of self-critique and perfectionism may be hereditary and life-long, although causes of anorexia nervosa are likely to be developed as a result of cultural or social pressure and unattainable physical ideals.

Research highlights the respective gender prevalence in anorexia nervosa, with women 1.75 to three times as likely to develop the condition, which is thought to be a result of pressure placed on women, specifically.

However, recent findings suggest that men, particularly those involved in gym culture and immersed in social circles which emphasise weight-lifting, are increasingly likely to develop eating patterns associated with or conducive to that of a disorder.

Adverse outcomes

Ultimately, people who live with an eating disorder which restricts or encourages the mental suppression of physical requirements are at severe risk. Potential outcomes of anorexia nervosa may be fatal or may facilitate the onset of other conditions which pose a fatal risk to the human body, as a result of poor nutrition and biological degeneration.

In addition, adverse side-effects of starving oneself may accelerate symptoms associated with anaemia, muscle loss, cardiovascular health, organ failure and hormone balance.

Support for people experiencing anorexia nervosa

Although it can be difficult to recognise a mental disability with severe psychosocial consequences that may inhibit day-to-day life or hasten life expectancy, physical perfectionism is immaterial as soon as it supercedes national health guidelines regarding body mass index [BMI].

No one should have to live in fear of feeling unhappy with the healthiest version of themselves. If you or someone you know is experiencing anorexia nervosa, please refer to the following resources:

Butterfly: 1800 33 4673

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636