(Anorexia Nervosa—Adult)


Anorexia is an eating disorder. A person is obsessed with losing more weight than needed. Losing weight may involve exercising too much, taking laxatives or diuretics, or inducing vomiting.

Causes    TOP

The cause of anorexia is not known. It appears to be a mix of your genes, way of life, and environment.

Risk Factors    TOP

Anorexia is more common in young women. Your risk is also higher for:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Wanting to be perfect
  • Fear of gaining weight
  • Pressure to be thin
  • Other people in your family have the same problems
  • Emotional stress
  • Other mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety
  • Way of life that highlights being thin as ideal

Symptoms    TOP

Anorexia may cause:

  • Excess weight loss
  • Obsession with food, and how much fat and calories are in it
  • Dieting even when thin
  • Strong fear of gaining weight, even when underweight
  • Body dysmorphia—you see yourself as overweight when you’re not
  • Basing self-evaluation heavily on body weight or shape
  • Loss of monthly periods in women
  • Excess exercising
  • Feeling cold, mainly in the hands and feet
  • Being secretive about food
  • Hair loss or growth of fine hair on the body
  • Fainting or lightheadedness
  • Constipation
  • Heart palpitations

Anorexia often leads to:

Body Dysmorphia

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Diagnosis    TOP

You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. Your answers and a physical exam may point to anorexia. You may also have:

  • Blood tests
  • ECG—to check how the heart is working
  • Bone density tests
  • A psychological exam

Treatment    TOP

The goal is to return to and keep a healthy weight. A healthy weight is above 85% of your ideal weight. The intake of calories is slowly added to. For serious anorexia, care may start in a hospital.

This can be done with:

Nutritional Consultation

You will learn how to eat a healthful diet. You will also learn what your healthy weight and calorie goals are.


This can help address harmful thought patterns, help you gain weight, and make you feel better about yourself. There are many different types of therapy. You may need more than one type:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy(CBT). CBT helps you learn to handle stress. You will change how you think. This will help you gain control of your feelings. You will also find out the cause of the problems you’re having.
  • Interpersonal—To help you learn and cope with concerns about the people in your life.
  • Family—Families tend to play a role in eating disorders. Many people can't get better unless their families help with making changes. They will learn about anorexia and how to support you.

Medicines    TOP

Medicines will depend on other problems you may have. The most common are:

  • Antidepressants—To balance brain chemicals. They are not useful without counseling.
  • Vitamins and minerals to keep up adequate nutrition.
  • Hormone replacement to resume periods and prevent bone loss.

Prevention    TOP

There is no way to prevent anorexia since the cause is unknown.


National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders
NEDA—National Eating Disorders Association


Canadian Mental Health Association
National Eating Disorder Information Center


Anorexia nervosa. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated June 15, 2017. Accessed August 31, 2018.
Anorexia nervosa. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated March 2018. Accessed August 31, 2018.
Anorexia nervosa. Office on Women's Health website. Available at: Updated August 28, 2018. Accessed August 31, 2018.
Casper RC. How useful are pharmacological treatments in eating disorders? Psychopharmacol Bull. 2002;36(2):88-104.
Last reviewed June 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Adrian Preda, MD
Last Updated: 8/31/2018

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