Understanding anorexia

Anorexia is a form of eating disorder where a distorted body image can result in an obsession with food and weight control. Individuals with anorexia may heavily restrict their food intake, engage in excessive exercise, or turn to other methods to lose weight, even when they’re already underweight. The health consequences of anorexia are serious, with a diagnosis requiring urgent medical care in order to achieve recovery.

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is the scientific name for what we commonly refer to as anorexia. When an individual has an inaccurate and distorted sense of their own body, this can lead to a dramatic and controlling fear of gaining weight. Even though the individual may already have a low body weight, they still see themselves as overweight, leading to a desire to restrict their food take in order to lose more weight. This restriction can lead to malnutrition and other health consequences that are both acute and chronic. Anorexia nervosa treatment is likely required for the individual to make a sustainable recovery.

Who does anorexia affect?

Anorexia can affect anyone, but it’s most common in young women and adolescent girls. However, boys and men are increasingly developing anorexia, potentially in relation to growing social pressures that have directly contributed to the high numbers of anorexia in developing females. Anorexia is more rare over the age of 40. 

How common is anorexia?

Anorexia is one of the most common forms of eating disorders, with approximately 85,000 Australian adults currently living with anorexia nervosa. It’s estimated that one1 in 20 Australians have some form of eating disorder, with their prevalence on the rise. 

What is the difference between anorexia and bulimia

Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are both forms of eating disorders that can not only cause significant disruption to everyday health and well-being, but can also pose serious (and potentially fatal) risks to your long-term health.

Individuals with anorexia follow a typical pattern of restricting their food intake while often engaging in excessive exercise. In contrast, individuals living with bulimia are likely to binge eat before purging through methods such as vomiting or laxative abuse.

Symptoms and Causes

The symptoms and causes of anorexia can differ from person to person. By familiarising yourself with its signs and symptoms, you can monitor your own behaviour, as well as any symptoms that may arise in your loved ones. 

What are the signs and symptoms of anorexia?

One of the unique characteristics of anorexia nervosa is that an underweight individual will believe they’re overweight. They’ll attempt to maintain a low body weight through calorie restriction, even when serious physical consequences make themselves known. 

For someone in the throes of anorexia, food, calories, exercise, weight and their physical appearance can quickly become an obsession that disrupts their ability to prioritise other responsibilities. 

Emotional and mental signs of anorexia

While the physical signs of anorexia may be difficult to hide, those with this disorder can often obscure its emotional and mental symptoms. 

Emotional and mental signs of anorexia can include:

  • An intense fear of gaining any weight
  • Ongoing behavioural patterns that prevent weight gain
  • An obsession with food, calories and exercise
  • Strict rules about dieting, body form and weight
  • Frustration, irritability or anger surrounding meal times
  • Depression and anxiety
  • A decreased ability to concentrated
  • Body dysmorphia or satisfaction
  • Significantly low self-esteem

Behavioural signs of anorexia

As anorexia can be tied to strict rules and limitations around food and exercise, it carries with it a number of clear behavioural signs. These include:

  • Extreme dieting behaviour (including calorie counting, avoiding food groups, discovering new food allergies)
  • Binge eating
  • Hiding food
  • Laxative abuse or the heavy use of appetite suppressants
  • Consistent behaviours related to body awareness and body image – such as constantly looking at themselves in the mirror, and measuring fat on the body
  • Withdrawal from social experiences
  • Secrecy around food and eating patterns
  • Ongoing, excessive and compulsive exercise
  • Obsessive behaviour surrounding food
  • Self-harm and suicide attempts

Physical signs and symptoms of anorexia

If you’re concerned you or someone you love may be experiencing anorexia, it’s important to pay attention to the following physical signs and symptoms:

  • Considerable weight loss within short windows of time
  • Underweight body weight that’s outside of the healthy range for the individual’s age and height
  • A loss of libido
  • Fatigue and irritability
  • The loss of periods (for women)
  • Poor blood flow to hands and feet and an intolerance to the cold
  • Weakened or lost muscles
  • Heart problems and circulation problems
  • Dehydration or kidney failure
  • Dizziness without a clear reason 
  • Fainting 
  • Dry and brittle skin, nails and hair
  • Reduced bone calcium
  • Dental decay

What causes anorexia?

No individual factor is the root of anorexia. This is a highly personal experience, with anorexia nervosa arising from a wide range of potential causes that differ from individual to individual. 

Certain risk factors can contribute to the likelihood of anorexia developing, including biology, body dissatisfaction, an adherence to cultural messaging around body ‘ideals’, ongoing dieting, low self-esteem, social isolation, anxiety or depression, perfectionism, and trauma. 

Diagnosis and Tests

Seeking professional anorexia help is crucial to receiving an accurate diagnosis for anorexia. Once a diagnosis is in place, an anorexia recovery plan can be developed that will help the individual suffering from anorexia to build ongoing management strategies, while receiving the clinical support they need for their physical, mental and emotional health. 

How is anorexia diagnosed?

Many healthcare and mental health professionals have the ability to recognise the warning signs of an eating disorder. A GP will carry out a full physical examination, including blood tests and asking questions about your physical and emotional health and well-being. 

They’ll also review your medical history and lifestyle factors. If there are any other potential underlying medical conditions or illnesses, these can be tested for in order to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

What tests are used to diagnose or assess anorexia?

During the course of an anorexia diagnosis, a GP may use tests including blood tests that identify signs of malnutrition, bone density scans, and electrocardiograms.

Management and Treatment

After an anorexia nervosa diagnosis is in place, access to treatment pathways can provide a pathway forward towards anorexia recovery and rehabilitation. The support and monitoring of an expert healthcare team is crucial to ensuring the highest quality of outcomes for individuals navigating the challenges of anorexia. 

How is anorexia treated?

Anorexia treatment requires multiple tools, drawing on specific methodologies to address physical and psychological health needs. It’s common for a psychiatrist, psychologist, dietitian, occupational therapist, GP and more individual practitioners to be involved in the treatment of anorexia.


Cognitive-behavioural therapy is a common form of psychotherapy that has a demonstrated ability to treat anorexia. This can assist in overcoming the unhelpful thought patterns that contribute to anorexic behaviours, and identifying correlations between thoughts, emotional responses and eating behaviours. 


Specific medications or supplements may be vital to strengthening the individual’s body and providing support for mental health conditions contributing to (or arising from) anorexia.

Nutrition counselling

Nutrition counselling is a crucial element of anorexia treatment. A qualified dietitian will work with the individual to develop healthy and nutritionally-balanced meal plans that provide for their nutritional needs. They’ll also provide education on portion sizes and healthy eating habits, supporting individuals to develop the tools they need to nourish their bodies and build an ongoing healthy relationship with food.

Group and/or family therapy

Depending on the circumstances contributing to anorexia, group and/or family therapy may be an integral element of recovery. In these safe, supportive environments, individuals can benefit from sharing their experiences with others going through similar experiences. This can help to reduce the isolation that can coexist with anorexia, develop coping mechanisms and lead to a greater connection to self, as well as building education for family members supporting a loved one with anorexia.


In certain severe cases of anorexia, it may be necessary for an individual to be hospitalised in order to stabilise their health. Hospitalisation can involve medical monitoring, nutritional support, and the commencement of psychological treatment. 

This is most often used when individuals are in either immediate danger of harming themselves or facing significant risks of medical complications due to their malnourishment.

How can we help?

We welcome all individuals struggling with anorexia to find hope and healing at Hope In Health. Our expert medical professionals and therapists work in close collaboration to provide integrated, holistic anorexia therapy that’s compassionate and supportive. 

With a wide range of clinical treatments, we build personalised programs alongside you to deliver the highest quality of support for your journey through anorexia. 


If you or a loved one is struggling with a mental health condition, our team is ready to support you in every aspect of your recovery.

Find compassionate, care-filled and evidence-based therapeutic treatments with Hope In Health. Contact us today to learn more about how we can work together to build a foundation for ongoing healing and transformation.

Speak with our team today


return to life

Reach Out