Understanding Eating Disorders: Things You Should Know About Anorexia Nervosa

At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S. and it is estimated 9% of American women suffer from anorexia in their lifetime. Anorexia can be complex to understand. Here are some things you should know about anorexia.

by: Abigail Knowles

Much about anorexia nervosa remains a mystery. Certain risk factors have been identified, increasing the risk for an individual developing an eating disorder. Some of these risk factors include personality traits, perfectionism for example, or genetic factors or environmental factors, but these risk factors don’t give us a comprehensive understanding of this disorder and who exactly is the most vulnerable to developing anorexia. In fact, alarmingly little is known about this mental health disorder; the mental health disorder with the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorders [1].

What we do know: starvation affects the brain. Individuals who are currently struggling with anorexia rate higher on indexes of depression, anxiety and obsessiveness and these markers are attributed to chemical imbalances in the brain, although it is unclear how exactly starvation contributes to these changes. A doctor in Minnesota conducted a landmark study on the effects of starvation from 1944-1945 in the aftermath of WWII. Although clearly this experiment, if performed today, would not pass reviews of human ethics, it was permitted in the middle of the 20th century and has provided valuable information on the effects of starvation not just on the human physiology, but also on the mental health of the participants. Thirty-six conscientious objectors of WWII were recruited to participate and, over a period of six months their calorie content was cut in half, inducing a state of starvation like we see in anorexia nervosa. Some key physiological changes in participants were a reduction in heart size, loss of strength, feeling continually tired and a slowing of the metabolism. The men would chew gum continuously, up to 40 packs a day, and drink large quantities of water to feel full. Perhaps even more alarming were the psychological changes, an obsession with food that led to may of them staring at pictures of food and looking at cookbook recipes all the time and a loss of strong opinions on topics such as politics that, while observed in these men before the onset of the experiment, disappeared over the course of the starvation period [3]. Many of these behaviors are also observed in individuals struggling with anorexia and the findings of this study continue to be relevant in our discussions on eating disorders in present day. 

            The changes that we see in individuals struggling with anorexia, such as a loss of interest in things that once interested that person, are consistent with being deprived of the nutrients and calories that their body needs.  Understanding that the physiological and psychological effects of restrictive eating are interdependent and intertwined is an important step towards understanding anorexia nervosa.  

[1] https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/anorexia/anorexia-nervosa-highest-mortality-rate-of-any-mental-disorder-why

[2] https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/anorexia/how-malnourishment-affects-the-brain-research-on-anorexia-and-neurobiology

[3] https://archive.wphna.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/2005-Mad-Science-Museum-Ancel-Keys-Starvation.pdf

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This post was written by BALANCE blog intern Abigail Knowles