Anorexia Nervosa (cont.)

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How is anorexia nervosa diagnosed?

Anorexia nervosa can be a difficult disorder to diagnose, since individuals with anorexia often attempt to hide the disorder. Denial and secrecy frequently accompany other symptoms. It is unusual for an individual with anorexia to seek professional help because the individual typically does not accept that she or he has a problem (denial). In many cases, the actual diagnosis is not made until medical complications have developed. The individual is often brought to the attention of a professional by family members only after marked weight loss has occurred. When anorexics finally come to the attention of the health care professional, they often lack insight into their problem despite being severely malnourished and may be unreliable in terms of providing accurate information. Therefore, it is often necessary to obtain information from parents, a spouse, or other family members in order to evaluate the degree of weight loss and extent of the disorder. Health professionals will sometimes administer questionnaires for anorexia as part of screening for the disorder.

Warning signs of developing anorexia or one of the other eating disorders include excessive interest in dieting or thinness. One example of such interest includes a movement called "thinspiration," which promotes extreme thinness as a lifestyle choice rather than as a symptom of illness. There are a variety of web sites that attempt to inspire others toward extreme thinness by featuring information on achieving that goal, photos of famous, extremely thin celebrities, and testimonials, as well as before and after pictures of individuals who ascribe to extreme thinness.

The actual criteria for anorexia nervosa are found in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR).

There are four basic criteria for the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa that are characteristic:

  1. The refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for age and height (maintaining a body weight less than 85% of the expected weight)
  2. An intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though the person is underweight
  3. Self-perception that is grossly distorted, excessive emphasis on body weight in self-assessment, and weight loss that is either minimized or not acknowledged completely
  4. In women who have already begun their menstrual cycle, at least three consecutive periods are missed (amenorrhea), or menstrual periods occur only after a hormone is administered.

The DSM-IV-TR further identifies two subtypes of anorexia nervosa. In the binge-eating/purging type, the individual regularly engages in binge eating or purging behavior which involves self-induced vomiting or the misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas during the current episode of anorexia. In the restricting type, the individual severely restricts food intake but does not regularly engage in the behaviors seen in the binge-eating type.

In order to diagnose anorexia, the health care professional distinguishes this illness from being a symptom of an underlying medical disorder or of another eating disorder. As a symptom of a medical disorder, the term anorexia (in general, rather than anorexia nervosa, the condition discussed in this article) describes the considerable weight loss that may be the result of serious illness that may afflict terminally ill patients who are receiving hospice care.

Unlike the binge-eating/purging type of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa does not result in weight reduction below the minimal normal weight. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by episodes of eating significantly excessive amounts of food that the individual feels they cannot stop themselves from engaging in (binges), alternating with episodes of attempts to counteract the binges using inappropriate behaviors (purging) like self-induced vomiting, misuse of medications, fasting, and/or excessive exercising. Most individuals with an eating disorder do not fit neatly into either the diagnosis of anorexia or bulimia and are therefore classified as suffering from eating disorder, not otherwise specified (EDNOS). For example, people with binge-eating disorder experience episodes of binge eating but do not regularly engage in purging or restricting behaviors.


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