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Anorexia nervosa symptoms

3-minute read

People with anorexia nervosa are in a state of starvation, which impairs the brain's ability to think rationally.

Anxiety can affect your ability to concentrate.

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder which causes severe weight loss.

Food supplies the energy required for our bodies to function, so the symptoms of anorexia nervosa can take a serious toll.

The most obvious sign that a person has anorexia nervosa is that they are severely underweight, they have lost weight very quickly or their weight fluctuates a lot.

A BMI of less than 18.5 is considered to be underweight. But being skinny is not the only sign of anorexia.

There are psychological and behavioural signs that a person may have anorexia nervosa. In addition, there are a range of physical side effects caused by the disorder.

Psychological signs may include

  • a fear of putting on weight.
  • a distorted body image (the person 'sees' themselves as fat, when they are underweight).
  • a preoccupation with eating, food, body shape and weight
  • not admitting to being hungry.
  • not wanting to eat.
  • low self-esteem and perfectionism.
  • depression and anxiety.

Behavioural signs may include

  • dieting
  • excessive exercise
  • checking weight or body obsessively
  • avoiding social events with family and friends
  • secrecy around eating
  • obsessively avoiding certain foods
  • obsessive rituals around food preparation and eating
  • deliberate misuse of appetite suppressants, laxatives, enemas or diuretics
  • self harm, substance abuse or suicide attempts.

Physical signs may include

  • rapid weight loss or frequent changes in weight
  • brittle hair and nails
  • dry, yellow skin
  • growth of soft, fine hair over the body and face ('lanugo' or 'peach fuzz')
  • changes to the face, such as sunken eyes and pale skin
  • an irregular heartbeat
  • becoming easily cold
  • impaired thinking, including lack of concentration and poor memory
  • fainting or dizziness
  • lethargy
  • disrupted menstrual cycle or complete loss of menstruation
  • decreased libido in men
  • osteoporosis and bone problems that can increase the risk of broken bones.

See a doctor if you or someone you know is suspected of having anorexia. A diagnosis of anorexia nervosa can be made by a health professional and is the first step in the journey to recovery.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know might have anorexia nervosa, contact the following organisations for support, information and counselling:

Last reviewed: July 2017

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Anorexia Nervosa | The Butterfly Foundation

What is Anorexia Nervosa?

Read more on Butterfly Foundation website

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa (AN) is defined by the persistent restriction of energy intake, intense fear of gaining weight and disturbance in self-perceived weight or shape

Read more on NEDC - National Eating Disorders Collaboration website

Anorexia nervosa

Anorexia nervosa is a disorder characterised by a relentless desire to lose weight despite obvious malnutrition.

Read more on WA Health website

Anorexia nervosa and osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bones become fragile, leading to a higher risk of breaks or fractures. A minor bump or fall can be enough to cause a break in someone with osteoporosis. People with anorexia nervosa are at increased risk of developing osteoporosis. This factsheet explains how anorexia nervosa can affect your bones, how to find out if you are at risk of osteoporosis, and what you can do to help protect your bone health

Read more on Osteoporosis Australia website

Anorexia nervosa in children and young people | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

What is anorexia nervosa? Anorexia nervosa is a mental illness in which there is a disturbance in the way a person experiences their body shape or weight as well as unhappiness with their body

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

Anorexia nervosa in children & teenagers | Raising Children Network

Anorexia nervosa is a mental and eating disorder that makes people lose too much weight. Read about signs of anorexia and how to get help for your child.

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What is anorexia nervosa? | Eating disorders | ReachOut Australia

Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder with some unique characteristics, such as an obsessive fear of gaining weight, distorted body image and low body weight.

Read more on website

Anorexia nervosa (eating disorders) information | myVMC

Anorexia is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder, characterised by extreme reluctance to consume food as a result of a disturbed body image.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Anorexia nervosa | Garvan Institute of Medical Research

Eating disorders share symptoms such as a distorted view of body shape and weight, and extreme disturbances in eating behaviour. Read about Garvan's research and understanding of these disorders.

Read more on Garvan Institute of Medical Research website

Treatment of eating disorders | Your Health in Mind

Medications (medicines) are not part of the standard treatment for anorexia nervosa because there is not strong enough evidence that they are effective

Read more on RANZCP - The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists website

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