Signs & Symptoms of Anorexia

Sierra Tucson offers effective, comprehensive treatment for individuals struggling with addiction and mental health concerns. Learn more about the signs and symptoms of anorexia.

Understanding Anorexia

Learn about anorexia

A serious and life-threatening form of disordered eating that involves the rigid restriction of food in order to achieve the lowest weight possible is known as anorexia nervosa. Sufferers of this condition possess an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight and, as a result, go to great lengths to abstain from the consumption of food. Additionally, those battling this mental illness are known to abuse substances, such as stimulants, diet pills, laxatives, and diuretics, to prevent the body from absorbing nutrients as another method to avoid weight gain.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), there are two types of anorexia nervosa:

Restricting type: The most widely known form of this disorder, the restricting type involves rigid dieting, fasting, and excessive exercising to prevent weight gain.

Binge eating/purging type: Those with the binge eating/purging type of anorexia nervosa may have episodes in which they overeat and induce vomiting afterwards as a means of ridding the body of the food that was consumed.

The monumental mental and physical health risks associated with this illness are quite costly and can lead to death if treatment is not sought and implemented as soon as symptoms become apparent. Many sufferers of anorexia nervosa require both therapeutic and medical interventions in order to overcome this potentially fatal mental illness. A key thing to understand, however, is that there are viable options for care in existence that can save the lives of those battling anorexia nervosa.


Anorexia statistics

Anorexia nervosa is believed to affect more women than men. And while prevalence rates of this condition are higher among females, research has found that 10-15 percent of all adults diagnosed with this illness are male, though experts believe that many men do not seek treatment for this condition as often as women. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate when compared to other eating disorders and sufferers of this condition are often at greater risk for developing self-injurious behaviors, ideations of suicide, and attempting suicide when compared to individuals with other forms of disordered eating. In fact, it is estimated that for every 100,000 suicides that occur yearly, 12 of those individuals battle anorexia nervosa.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for anorexia

There are several causes and risk factors that can make a person more vulnerable to the development of anorexia nervosa. The following elaborations on these causes and the listed risk factors briefly explain how someone can come to develop this life-threatening mental health condition.

Genetic: Similar to other mental illnesses, anorexia nervosa is known to possess a genetic component. This conclusion was made after it was realized by researchers that the disorder is known to occur more frequently among those with a family history of eating disorders, depressive disorders, and bipolar disorder. In lieu of this finding, it can be said that genetics are partially at work in the development of this mental illness.

Environmental: Experts in the field of mental health believe that a person’s environment can greatly impact whether or not an individual will develop symptoms synonymous with anorexia nervosa. For example, people who are part of cultures that value thinness and place a great deal of importance on maintaining certain weight expectations have a greater risk for developing this form of disordered eating. Furthermore, individuals of certain professions or those engaged in certain athletics in which physical appearance is prized also have an increased likelihood for developing anorexia nervosa. Lastly, individuals who have a history of being victimized or enduring trauma are also more likely to battle this dangerous eating disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female
  • Being in an environment or part of a culture that values thinness
  • Exposure to chronic stress
  • Personal history of being a victim of trauma, abuse, and/or neglect
  • Family history of disordered eating or other mental health conditions
  • Pre-existing mental health condition or conditions

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of anorexia

There are a number of signs and symptoms that suggest an individual is suffering from anorexia nervosa. Many of the telltale signs are observable by others and some may not be as apparent unless the individual battling this disorder conveys certain thoughts or feelings. The listed behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms are those that infer anorexia nervosa is present in a person’s life—symptoms that need to be reported to a mental health professional in the event that treatment is sought.

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Refusing to eat
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Self-induced vomiting
  • Skipping meals
  • Wearing oversized clothes
  • Consuming laxatives, diuretics, or using enemas
  • Complaints about appearance
  • Constantly checking oneself in the mirror
  • Excessive exercise
  • Lying about food intake
  • Abusing substances
  • Rigid dieting or fasting
  • Restricting or limiting types of food consumed (e.g. eating only certain vegetables, etc.)
  • Denial of hunger
  • Engaging in ritualistic behaviors when preparing food (e.g., cutting food into small pieces, weighing food before eating, chewing food and then refusing to swallow, etc.)
  • Frequently weighing oneself
  • Binge-eating

Physical symptoms:

  • Electrolyte disturbances
  • Suppression of immune system
  • Low hormone levels
  • Dehydration
  • Dry skin
  • Thinning hair / hair loss
  • Brittle nails
  • Decrease in bone density / broken bones
  • Extreme weight loss / emaciated appearance (adults with a BMI between 17.0 and 18.5)
  • Flat affect
  • Swelling of tissues
  • Broken blood vessels
  • Yellowing of the skin
  • Swollen glands
  • Erosion of enamel on teeth due to purging
  • Anemia
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slowed heart rate / irregular heart beat
  • Delayed onset of menstrual cycle / total absence of menstrual cycle (females only)
  • Presence of fine hair on arms and legs
  • Abdominal pain
  • Excessive energy
  • Lethargy
  • Constipation
  • Intolerance to cold / hypothermia
  • Hypotension

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Desire to control situations and environment
  • Poor impulse control
  • Obsessions / compulsions / preoccupation with food, weight, or body shape

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Low self-worth
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming overweight
  • Depressed mood
  • Drastic shifts in mood
  • Low range of emotions


Effects of anorexia

The longer an individual battles anorexia nervosa, the likelihood for a number of devastating effects occurring in that person’s life increases exponentially. With the most serious outcome being death as a result of the medical complications known to occur for those with anorexia, the following effects are also known to take place should a person not seek treatment for this perilous form of disordered eating:

  • Development of another mental illness
  • Substance use or abuse, of which could lead to addiction
  • Kidney failure
  • Digestive system damage
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Heart attack / failure
  • Inability to attend work
  • Inability to adhere to responsibilities or roles
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Infertility
  • Loss of muscle mass / weakened muscles
  • Osteoporosis
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

Anorexia and co-occurring disorders

It is quite common for those battling anorexia nervosa to also struggle with the symptoms of an additional mental health condition. It is also rare for an eating disorder to exist in isolation. For this reason, Sierra Tucson supplies treatment for anorexia nervosa as a secondary diagnosis. For some, these additional disorders are present before the onset of anorexia symptoms, while others develop symptoms of these illnesses when engaging in the destructive eating habits and thought processes that are cornerstone to anorexia nervosa. The following mental health conditions are those that are often diagnosed alongside anorexia nervosa:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorders

I firmly believe that Sierra Tucson saved my daughter’s life. My wife and I had tried nearly everything, with only very limited but never lasting success. Sierra Tucson’s program turned my daughter’s life around, put her on the path to recovery, and gave her the life-long skills to succeed, where everyone else had failed. I wholeheartedly support Sierra Tucson’s program and would recommend it to any person.

– Anonymous Client
Marks of Quality Care
These accreditations are an official recognition of our dedication to providing treatment that exceeds the standards and best practices of quality care.
  • Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA)
  • GeneSight
  • National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP)
  • National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems (NAPHS)
  • Neurostar