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Children's Hospital of Wisconsin

Children's Hospital of Wisconsin
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Anorexia

What Is Anorexia?

Anorexia is an eating disorder. People with anorexia (an-eh-REK-see-uh) are very afraid of gaining weight. They have unrealistic views of their body and try to eat as little as possible. They also might exercise too much or do other things to lose weight.

Most people with anorexia (also called anorexia nervosa) are female, but boys can have it too.

What Are the Signs of Anorexia?

Besides not eating enough, kids and teens with anorexia may:

  • have dramatic weight loss
  • be tired or irritable
  • feel cold
  • skip meals or eat only a few foods that are low in fat and calories
  • talk obsessively about food and dieting
  • have low self-esteem and judge themselves based on weight
  • feel self-conscious about their appearance
  • feel a need to exercise as much as possible

You cannot tell if a person has anorexia by looking at them. A person does not need to be thin. People with larger bodies can also have anorexia.

Some people with anorexia will binge eat and make themselves throw up or try other ways to prevent weight gain, like bulimia.

People with anorexia are more likely to have anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or depression.

What Problems Can Happen?

The lack of nutrition associated with anorexia can cause:

  • dizziness and fainting due to low blood pressure
  • a slow pulse
  • hair loss
  • constipation, stomach pain, and nausea
  • weakened bones (osteoporosis) and muscles
  • stopped menstrual periods (amenorrhea) 
  • problems with thinking, memory, and attention

The combination of restrictive eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis is called the female athlete triad.

Anorexia can cause dehydration and serious heart and kidney problems. In extreme cases, anorexia can cause severe malnutrition and even death.

What Causes Anorexia?

The exact cause of anorexia is not known. Many experts believe that a combination of psychological and genetic factors and social ideas about body size can lead to the condition.

How Is Anorexia Diagnosed?

If a doctor thinks a child or teen might have anorexia, they'll do an exam, take a medical history, and ask about eating, exercise habits, and emotional issues.

Doctors and mental health professionals look for:

  • dramatic weight loss
  • distorted body image (unrealistic views of their body)
  • fear of gaining weight or trying to prevent weight gain even though their weight is low
  • a refusal to believe the serious problems that go with low body weight

Doctors may order blood tests, urine tests, bone density tests, or an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check for problems.

People with eating disorders often try to hide their behaviors. But finding out about anorexia early is the best way to successfully treat it.

If you think your child might have anorexia, talk to your doctor right away.

How Is Anorexia Treated?

Anorexia is best treated by a team of doctors, dietitians, and therapists. Treatment includes nutrition counseling, medical care, individual or group therapy, and family-based treatment.

The main goals of treatment are to:

  • Stop unhealthy behaviors (such as fasting, bingeing and vomiting, and overexercising).
  • Restore weight.
  • Learn ways to change thoughts about their body and their approach to food.

Doctors might prescribe medicines to treat anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns, if needed.

Most kids and teens with anorexia can be treated at home, but some will need to go to a more intensive day or residential treatment program. Someone with severe weight loss and malnutrition or serious health issues will need treatment in a hospital.

With the right treatment and support, kids and teens with anorexia can make a full recovery. Relapses (when symptoms come back) can happen, so it’s important to talk to the doctor or therapist to get back on track as soon as possible.

How Can Parents Help?

Family members can play a key role in helping their child recover from an eating disorder and return to a healthy weight. Anorexia is linked to strong emotions and worries about body size and shape. Help your child have a healthy body image. Be supportive and encourage positive attitudes about exercise and nutrition at home. Try these tips:

  • Be a role model. Don’t criticize your own weight, body, or looks. Talk about your body in positive ways. 
  • Avoid talk about weight or weight shaming your child.
  • Focus on a healthy lifestyle. Encourage everyone in your family to be active every day and eat a varied diet.
  • Set regular mealtimes. Skipping meals and limiting calories can trigger binge eating. 
  • Identify other triggers. Stress, mood, and poor sleep can lead to unhealthy eating behaviors. Ways to manage stress and improve mood include music, art, dance, writing, or talking to a friend. Yoga, meditation, or taking a couple of deep breaths also can help your child relax.

If you are concerned your child may have an eating disorder, call your doctor for advice. The doctor can recommend nutrition and mental health professionals who have experience treating eating disorders in kids and teens.

You also can find support and more information online at:

Reviewed by: Christine C. DiPaolo, APN and Kidian Martinez, LCSW
Date reviewed: November 2021