I Want to Stop Eating: Do I Have an Eating Disorder?

Woman looking at small portion of food on her plate.

 iStock / Getty Images Plus

Today's diet-obsessed culture has caused many people to develop an unhealthy preoccupation with their bodies. While making mindful food choices and ramping up your exercise routine can be healthy, an all-consuming obsession with calorie restriction and body image could signify an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa.

Individuals with anorexia nervosa continuously challenge their bodies to reach a lower weight through unhealthy means. This weight loss is often a result of calorie restriction or self-purging mechanisms.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate among mental illnesses and, because of this, professional intervention is necessary to effectively treat the disorder.

What Is Anorexia Nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is categorized as a life-threatening psychological illness that causes a preoccupation with thinness that interferes with an individual's daily life. The disorder affects both men and women, though women are more likely to be impacted, particularly during adolescence.

Those with anorexia engage in self-destructive behaviors such as calorie restriction and self-body shaming. They also display an immense fear of gaining weight, rarely accept a minimum weight, and generally have a distorted body image.

Individuals with anorexia unhealthily fixate upon food, displaying abnormal eating habits that become apparent to those around them. People with anorexia often do not believe they are ill and go to great lengths to mask their disorder. Denial of the illness's severity can be a defining feature of anorexia.

Are You Suffering from Anorexia?

These may be some signs that you may be struggling with an eating disorder. If you answer "yes" to some of these, and/or any of these thoughts or behaviors or concerning to you, it may be time to seek professional help.

  • Are you afraid of gaining weight?
  • Do you equate your self-worth with your body size?
  • Are you constantly trying a new diet?
  • Do you compulsively diet, purge, or exercise excessively?
  • Are your loved ones concerned about your weight loss?
  • Do you consider yourself fat even when others tell you you're thin?
  • Do you weigh or measure your food?
  • Do you conceal your eating habits from others?

Anorexia Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Mind Doc Guide

Types of Anorexia

Anorexia is generally thought of as solely limiting or restricting calories, but people with this disorder may also exhibit purging behaviors.

  • Restricting: Weight loss is achieved by restricting calorie intake. This may mean engaging in restrictive diets or fasting.
  • Purging: Weight loss is achieved by the use of diuretics, purging, or exercising to excess.

Signs and Symptoms

Seeing someone with a low BMI can raise questions about whether the individual has an eating disorder. However, anorexia affects people of all body sizes, and weight alone is not an indicator of whether a person is suffering from the disease.

In cases of atypical anorexia (AAN), a person is diagnosed if they meet the criteria for anorexia nervosa, “except that despite significant weight loss, the individual’s weight is within or above the normal range."

People with anorexia tend to display similar habits, such as avoiding meals with others and hiding self-destructive behaviors from those closest to them. When questioned about their food-related behavior or weight loss, the person may become defensive.

Emotional Symptoms

From an outsider's perspective, some emotional symptoms of anorexia may be difficult to recognize. However, those close to someone struggling with the disorder may notice the following telltale signs:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Determines self-esteem, worth, or attractiveness by appearance and weight
  • Easily irritated
  • Extremely self-critical
  • Little motivation to engage in relationships or activities
  • Strong need for approval
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Overly critical of appearance
  • Denial over being too thin
  • Feeling fat even when underweight

Behavioral Symptoms

Behavioral symptoms of anorexia often manifest before physical symptoms become evident. Friends and family may first notice these symptoms:

  • Lies about eating
  • Preoccupied with food, recipes, or diets
  • Cooks meals and refusing to eat them
  • Diets despite being thin
  • Obsesses about nutrients, food labels, or calories
  • Secretive or unusual eating rituals, such as cutting food into tiny pieces
  • Makes excuses not to eat
  • Wears loose clothing to cover body shape
  • Exercises to burn off consumed calories
  • Vomits after meals
  • Uses laxatives, diuretics, or appetite-suppressing pills

Physical Symptoms

When the body is deprived of essential nutrients, it is forced to conserve its resources, causing a slew of physical symptoms due to malnutrition. Some of these symptoms are only present in advanced cases of anorexia nervosa:

  • Brittle hair and nails
  • Constipation
  • Constant feeling of being cold
  • Fine hair growth (called lanugo) covering the body to preserve heat
  • Dehydration
  • Bruising (often due to anemia)
  • Dizziness and fainting
  • Hair thinning
  • Loss of period after puberty, or delayed menstruation
  • Low body weight
  • Muscle loss or weakness
  • Loss in bone density (osteoporosis)
  • Pale, dry skin
  • Low heart rate and blood pressure

Causes

The exact cause of anorexia is unclear and varies from case to case. While cultural praise toward thinness seems to be a common source of blame for eating disorders, there are other contributing factors. Common correlations include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Past history of sexual or physical abuse
  • Perfectionism
  • Family troubles
  • Body dissatisfaction
  • History of family eating disorders
  • Traumatic experiences
  • Emotional difficulties

Effects

The causes of anorexia may be unclear, but the effects of the disease are quite apparent. When the body is deprived of essential nutrients, it essentially begins consuming itself in order to survive. This can have physical and mental implications that, if left untreated, may be deadly.

Treatment

If you or someone you know is suffering from anorexia, treatment is essential for recovery. When approaching someone about their eating disorder, they may become combative; this is normal. It's also normal, if you are the one struggling, to feel embarrassed or afraid to seek help.

If left untreated, anorexia can cause serious medical issues and may even be fatal. Eating disorders can rapidly spiral out of control, so early intervention is key to identifying and treating the problem.

If you're unsure whether you or a loved one is displaying symptoms of anorexia, it's best to err on the side of caution. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) provides an online eating disorder screening tool.

If you or a loved one are coping with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline for support at 1-800-931-2237. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Recovering from anorexia takes time, but most of the signs and symptoms are reversible with treatment. Seeking support from your loved ones and speaking to a doctor are the first steps toward recovery.

Was this page helpful?
2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Eating Disorders Association. Statistics & Research On Eating Disorders. 2020.

  2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.