What are the myths about anorexia, and why does it matter?
The biggest anorexia myth involves prevalence. Since anorexia is so well-known, people assume that it is also common. But in reality, less than 2 percent of the population has true anorexia. These people face very serious health consequences, which can be blunted and blurred by the pro-ana movement, but thankfully, the incidence of this disease is very low.
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Eating disorders are a common health challenge for women and men around the world, and they can have devastating results.
One of these disorders, anorexia, is probably familiar to most people, and conjures images of extremely skinny or even emaciated young women who are starving themselves to death because they want to be thin.
This image is sometimes accurate, but other times, anorexia can go long unnoticed. Most people are likely not aware of the facts about anorexia, including how common it is, how it manifests, and how it can be treated. Knowing more about this challenging mental health disorder can be helpful in identifying it in loved ones or even in oneself, making it easier to get treatment before significant health effects take hold.
What Is Anorexia?
Anorexia, which is the common name of the disorder anorexia nervosa, is a condition where people see themselves as being overweight, or want to control the shape and size of a specific body part, even when they are extremely thin. In its chronic form, it can manifest as an intense fear of gaining weight or an extreme obsession over the shape of the body, to the point that people stop eating, exercise excessively, and take other action to avoid gaining weight.
This results in those with anorexia:
- Having a low weight for their body type and height
- Actively avoiding efforts to gain and maintain a healthy weight
- Developing an unhealthy relationship with food
- Limiting food intake and eating a regulated range of food types
- Inducing vomiting after meals, if anorexia occurs alongside bulimia
Prevalence and StatisticsAlthough it is probably the most known eating disorder, anorexia is not the most common. According to the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, anorexia is less common among adults over 18 than bulimia and binge eating disorder (BED), occurring in less than 0.1 percent of the adult population.
According to another study from Current Psychiatry Reports, when younger women (15-19 years of age) are included, the lifetime prevalence of anorexia increases to 0.9 percent of women in the population; in addition, contrary to many perceptions, 0.3 percent of men exhibit the disorder at some point in their lives, usually later in life than women do. This results in a total of 1.2 percent of the population 15 and older that has anorexia at some point in life. This compares to a 1.6 percent total prevalence for bulimia, and 5.7 percent prevalence of BED.
Despite its lower prevalence, anorexia has historically resulted in more deaths than bulimia or BED. However, the mortality rate from anorexia has been decreasing since the late 1980s; it is assumed that the reason for this is the improvement in medical and psychological treatments since that time.
- Cultural beauty ideals
- Relatives or friends who exhibit the behavior
- Trauma, stress, depression, and other psychiatric issues
- Personal genetics, hormonal issues, and other body chemistry issues
It is hard to determine which of these may come first in any situation. The circumstances surrounding a particular individual beginning to exhibit these behaviors or leading into the full disorder are likely different than those of any other individual. For this reason, personalized treatment is necessary to help manage the symptoms for each person.
- Dry and brittle hair, nails, and skin, as well as thinning hair
- Thinning bone structure that can lead to osteoporosis
- Loss of muscle structure, weakness, and exhaustion
- Lack of menstruation in females and infertility
- Digestive and waste elimination problems
- Heart problems, anemia, and low blood pressure
- Heart, brain, and organ issues and potential failure
These are serious issues that can lead to death. However, the person struggling with anorexia will often not notice these problems or their severity. Even if they do notice, they are likely to be more concerned with staying thin.
Treatment for anorexia is similar to treatments for other psychological disorders. The most effective treatments, as discussed in an article from Psychological Medicine, include the following elements:
- Medical intervention to treat co-occurring mental and physical disorders
- Reintroduction of proper nutrition
- Individual counseling such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Family counseling, particularly for young people
- Social support mechanisms and tools for coping with the temptation to relapse
Medication does not seem to have a positive effect on treatment on its own. It seems that the most important element of treating anorexia is addressing the underlying perceptions and psychological issues that contribute to the fear of weight gain.
More research is still needed with regards to ethnically diverse populations, and research into the most effective treatments and current treatment models is ongoing. Matching treatment to the particular individual’s needs is the most effective path at present.
A new challenge has arisen in the struggle to help people recover from anorexia; over the last two decades, with the development of social media, a movement that is referred to as pro-anorexia or pro-ana has evolved.
This involves websites where individuals share tips on disordered eating for those who are dealing with anorexia.
These sites are often viewed as perpetuating the disorder, and thought to be dangerous to young people who might be at risk of developing the disorder who have stumbled onto the sites. However, certain studies, including one from Sociology of Health and Illness, propose that the purpose of these sites is more complex and can in fact serve as a support for those who are struggling with recovery in some ways. Another study from the Journal of Health Psychology suggests that these groups provide a type of social support for people who are dealing with anorexia, and some findings show that these sites do not necessarily contribute to higher rates of the disorder.
Nevertheless, it is important for people who are treating anorexia, or for those who suspect their loved one may be dealing with anorexia, to be aware of these sites and their potential to contribute to the risks associated with this disorder.
RecoveryWhile there is no cure for anorexia, recovery is possible. With a well-rounded treatment program, a person can learn to understand the disorder and manage the symptoms. With this understanding and education, individuals can achieve recovery and avoid relapse. Like with most psychological disorders, recovery is a lifelong process, and continued care and support are necessary.
Disclaimer: Facilities in the American Addiction Centers family do not offer treatment for anorexia. If clients come to us for other issues, we can offer referrals to appropriate treatment programs.