A Close Look at Eating Disorders: What Is Anorexia?

woman holding plate of cake

The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

Eating disorders are a series of disorders concerning food, the body, and the mind. They consist of conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and body dysmorphic disorder, along with some others. Eating disorders are serious and can often lead to long-term rehabilitation programs or long-term physical complications.

For this reason, it’s essential to fully understand them and understand when someone we love (or we ourselves) may be struggling with one. In this article, we’ll outline everything you need to know about one eating disorder in particular: anorexia nervosa.

What Is Anorexia?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by restrictive eating behaviors, compulsions, and negative self-talk about food/eating. Not every case of anorexia is the same, and some people struggle in ways that others do not. For example, some may completely stop eating for long periods altogether, while others may simply restrict certain food types.

Anorexia is often driven by a fear of gaining weight or body changes. It can also be driven by negative self-talk and body dysmorphia. It is different for everyone.

The most common signs and symptoms of anorexia include:

  • Avoiding certain foods that are perceived as “unhealthy” or “bad” foods
  • Not eating anything at all for long periods of time to lose weight or “get healthy.”
  • Compulsions involving food
  • Feeling that you are “overweight” or “fat” no matter how much you weigh
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Feeling that you look different than you do
  • Drinking coffee to avoid feelings of hunger
  • Drinking lots of fluids to avoid eating
  • Eating cotton balls or non-food items to fill your stomach
  • Only eating non-caloric foods and obsessively following a diet
  • Feeling validated when other people note your weight loss
  • Feelings of shame
  • Feelings of anxiety
  • Feelings of depression or sadness

Since anorexia involves food and the body, the condition can lead to being severely underweight and even health complications such as:

  • Losing your menstrual periods
  • Losing hair
  • Breaking bones easily
  • Death
  • Vomiting
  • A permanently altered stomach

Who Can Have Anorexia?

Many people see anorexia as a condition that only affects women and only skinny people. However, anorexia can also affect men, young people, elderly people, teenagers, non-binary people, transgender people, people of larger weights, and anyone of any background, sexual orientation, and race.

You do not have to be skinny or under a certain weight to be diagnosed with anorexia, either. Anyone of any body type can develop it if they meet the criteria in the DSM 5. Since restricted eating habits do not always cause weight loss (and can temporarily cause the opposite), it’s not possible to tell if someone has anorexia simply by looking at them. This is a very common misconception.

Here are a couple of examples of the ways anorexia can present in patients:

  • Patient 1 is a 25-year-old woman who is 5’2’’ and 80 lbs. She restricts her eating daily, only eats salad once a week, and drinks a lot of coffee. She is underweight and suffering a loss of menstrual period and frail bones.
  • Patient 2 is a 40-year-old man who is 6’0’’ and 300lb. He is not considered underweight. However, he does partake in restrictive eating practices weekly and has gained weight as a result. He has negative self-beliefs about eating and weight.
  • Patient 3 is a 14-year-old non-binary person who is 5’3’’ and 110lb and has started to partake heavily in dieting to “lose weight.” They do not believe they are at a healthy weight, and they want to lose more weight.

Are There Variations in This Condition?

Anorexia does have some variations. Not everyone with the condition interacts with food the same way. There are two main types of anorexia nervosa, which we’ve outlined below.


Restrictive-type anorexia can be diagnosed when someone is restricting their intake of food, calories, or types of food. They don’t have to have cut-out food altogether to get a diagnosis.

Binging and Purging

The binging and purging type of anorexia also has restrictive qualities. However, this can sometimes be accompanied by large periods of eating lots of food and then purging it up afterward. This type of anorexia is similar to another eating disorder called bulimia. However, bulimia does not include the restrictive type that anorexia does.

How Can Someone Get Help for Anorexia?

Getting help for anorexia can feel scary and impossible. However, there is hope. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with this condition, try out some of the resources below.


One of the most effective methods of treating eating disorders is traditional talk therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy). Exposure therapy is another form of therapy that has been proven to help manage and heal eating disorders. It involves facing fears and learning to tolerate the anxiety that comes with it to manage compulsions.

Eating Disorder Treatment/Rehab

For more dangerous cases, such as when someone is losing weight or is on track to have health complications, eating disorder treatment can help. Even in non-threatening cases, eating disorder treatment is an excellent option.

Rehabilitation centers are often structured environments with several doctors on staff to monitor the residents. You will also be given a structured meal plan and challenged to work through some of your ideas on your body/food. It can be difficult, but many people come back from eating disorder treatment and don’t meet the criteria for the diagnosis anymore.


A hospitalization is a good option for those who have a life-threatening symptom alongside their eating disorder. Many people who restrict to the point of losing too much weight will be hospitalized and may have to have a feeding tube or work long-term in a rehabilitation center in the hospital to be able to function normally again.

If you are going through an emergency, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately. Anorexia can be dangerous, so it’s important to get help when you need it.


If you’d like to learn more about the other types of eating disorders, check out this site. They’ve got a great advice column and more information on how to get help. You can also check out these eating disorder resources.