Understanding the anorexia eating disorder problem

 Anorexia eating disorder.

"As a mother, I would do anything for my daughter. Her father would have bought her anything she fancied to eat. But she asked for nothing. We could see her getting thinner and thinner. It was awful. I was the only member of the family who didn’t cry. I tried, but my heart was like a lump of lead.”

What had caused such a problem in an otherwise happy family?

A strange illness called anorexia nervosa.

What, then, is anorexia nervosa?

How do people get it, and why is it so extremely difficult to treat and cure?

What is anorexia nervosa?

Loss of appetite is not unusual.

We all have days when we are off our food.

This is termed “anorexia,” a word drawn from the Greek, meaning no appetite.

This common-enough break in the normal routine of living is soon resolved as the body takes its rest and our appetite is restored.

The opposite is true, however, of those who suffer from anorexia nervosa.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary records that this “loss of appetite due to severe emotional disturbance results in emaciation.”

Little wonder it can so easily lead to death!

Medically, anorexia nervosa is viewed as a psychosomatic disorder, that is, a disorder affecting the mind as well as the body.

But to many, that is an oversimplification of a complex and even now not fully understood illness.

It can bring with it great physical suffering as well as much heartache to all who come in contact with it.

The difficulty experienced in not being able to determine the exact cause of the onset of anorexia nervosa is not unusual, but there are common factors that emerge from a study of cases, and it is worth while to consider them.

What happens to you when you have anorexia?

Although anorexia nervosa can affect young men, the sufferers are usually adolescent girls.

The main factor in many cases is dieting that gets out of control.

Skipping the odd meal is not a dangerous thing to do, but strict dieting and irregular eating are a different matter.

Teenager Mary confided:

I wanted to lose a few pounds and so decided to go on a diet. To lose a little more, I cut out meals as well. Although my friends would tell me, ‘Oh, you’re thin—you’re losing weight!’ whenever I looked in the mirror I just saw myself as I always had been. Strangely, I could see no difference and still felt that I was greatly overweight. But it wasn’t long before I was quite ill.”
What does her mother say?

If my other daughter should come to me about a diet, I wouldn’t take it so lightly again. I would go more into it and say, ‘We will work it out together,’ so that when she is dieting she is still getting sound nutrition. The trouble is that when Mary had anorexia nervosa it was impossible to reason with her.”
What, then, is it that goes wrong?

For reasons that are still not clearly understood, once the body reaches a certain point of undernourishment, strange things can happen.

In the case of a young girl, menstruation will cease.

A little later on, extra hair on the arms and legs may appear, while the individual feels repelled by food and is overtaken by an overwhelming desire to remain thin.

Initially, an artificial vitality takes control.

Additionally, as Mary’s mother discovered too late, no amount of talking can convince the patient (which is what she has now become) that she is acting in any way abnormally or that her health—and maybe even her life—is in danger.

How can you know if a person has anorexia nervosa?

A marked loss of weight is an obvious sign to watch for, but, surprisingly, that is not always easy to spot.


Because anorexics often go to great lengths to conceal their true condition from both themselves and those who try to help them.

By putting on many layers of clothing, or by carrying weights in their pockets, they deceive themselves in a way that is difficult for their friends to comprehend.

Some will go to the extreme of self-induced vomiting or drastic purging to eliminate food from their bodies, but, again, usually without the knowledge of those around them.

Many view the illness as one peculiar to the Western world, but this is not the case.

Africans have become the best imitators of other cultures.

If slimming is such a rage in the West, then African women are vulnerable to compulsive slimming, too

Anorexia is cultivated deliberately and the girl’s refusal to eat is to achieve a certain goal.

This illness can be more than a simple dieting problem.

Emotions and stress play their part too in triggering it off.

Why mostly young people get anorexia?

Adolescence can be a particularly trying time, especially today when teenagers face many unusual problems and frustrations.

What has this to do with anorexia nervosa?

It seems that the most likely explanation is that the girl has a basic fear of growing up.

Thus by losing weight she tries to prevent or reverse the puberty changes in bodily configuration and sexual characteristics that she associates with adulthood whose responsibilities she is afraid to accept.

In assessing the illness, the relationship of the patient to life itself, as well as to the immediate family environment, is of prime importance.

Hormone changes are absolutely secondary and not the cause of anorexia nervosa.

The cause lies within the family itself.

Those young people who develop anorexia nervosa when they lose weight have been experiencing difficulties in coping with their lives, their feelings or more particularly with their transition through adolescence.

These difficulties may be of a wide variety of kinds.

What are some of these?

Consider what one sufferer has to say:

When I left school at sixteen, the happiest, most successful, best-dressed girls seemed to be the slim ones. To me, so shy and retiring, there was something to aim for, so I started to slim. But soon I was going far beyond my original diet, missing meals and cutting out food to lose more weight. The hunger pangs I suffered were excruciating, and yet the fact that I was somehow able to ignore those feelings and eventually conquer them brought me a great deal of satisfaction. Gradually, I grew weaker until I climbed stairs with the utmost difficulty. Even lifting a pillow became a great burden to me. Anorexia nervosa had become a reality. The cure took five long, difficult years. Yes, there were problems at home too during adolescence, but I know now that so much hinged on my reaction to the remarks passed about my baby fat. So, may I say, never, never make personal comments about a teenager’s weight, shape or size! You may do more harm than you can possibly imagine.”

A broken romance, an inferiority complex, pressure to pass examinations and ‘get on’ in the world, trying to live up to certain standards set by parents or by others in authority, all these things and many more can lead an insecure person along the road to anorexia nervosa.

Although all therapies may have their value in treating the symptoms (and it is advisable to get medical aid as soon as possible), recovery really rests with the individual.


Apply the following suggestions:

Some don’ts and do’s

DON’T isolate yourself. It is so easy to become introspective. The avenue of approach to mature adult thinking is so easily lost. Make friends! Value a wise confidant!

DON’T feel that you have to conform to fads and fashions. If you find yourself on your own on a matter of principle, see it as a position of real strength.

DO find something constructive to do, preferably something that is helpful to others. Serving others will take your mind off yourself.

DO realize that people have been cured of anorexia nervosa, as you can be. But much depends on your own positive thinking.