Anorexia nervosa factsheet

Introduction

Anorexia nervosa is a mental illness and a type of eating disorder. It affects how someone thinks and feels about their body shape and size. It also affects how someone behaves, including things like:

  • eating habits
  • exercise habits
  • mood and behaviour changes.

Anorexia is generally more common in girls than boys. The number of younger boys who develop anorexia is usually higher than that of young adult men.

Anorexia is a life-threatening condition and can seriously affect:

  • vital organs like the heart, liver and kidneys
  • brain function
  • growth and development
  • bone density
  • the ability to have children later on in life
  • friendships and family relationships.

 Signs and symptoms

When a child or teenager has anorexia, they may:

  • restrict the food they eat
  • have a distorted body image
  • have an intense fear of weight gain.

It can be difficult to spot anorexia in children and teenagers as it is developing. Not all people with anorexia will show all warning signs, and some signs may develop as the condition gets worse.

Warning signs can include:

  • food habits that are unusual or obsessive – for example, being very interested in food, recipes, and cooking but not eating what has been made
  • food hiding and restriction – for example, having rules about what food is “healthy” or allowed to be eaten
  • calorie counting and obsessive reading of nutrition labels on food
  • changing behaviour around food - for example, going to the bathroom for long periods after eating, or only eating away from other people
  • vomiting after meals
  • using laxatives
  • increased body-checking behaviours - for example, weighing or measuring the body.

Diagnosis

If you are worried that your child has an eating disorder like anorexia or they are showing signs like rapid weight loss and behavioural changes, see your local doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosing an eating disorder can involve:

  • talking to parents and carers
  • talking to your child or teenager
  • taking a medical history
  • doing a blood test and a urine test
  • doing a physical exam.

A physical exam can include checking:

  • weight
  • height
  • blood pressure
  • heart rate.

The doctor can give you information and refer you to health professionals who are used to treat eating disorders. 

Admission to the hospital may be needed if your child or teenager is: 

  • severely unwell 
  • at risk of self-harm 
  • at risk of suicide.

Treatment

A team of healthcare professionals from different specialties work together to develop a treatment plan for eating disorders like anorexia specific to your child. This is called a multidisciplinary care team, which creates an individual treatment plan for your child.

This team can include:

  • your local doctor or another doctor your child is comfortable talking to
  • psychologist
  • psychiatrist
  • dietician
  • eating disorder clinic
  • paediatrician.

Treatment of eating disorders is different for every child. Your child’s treatment team will be able to discuss treatment with you and your child and answer any questions you have.

General treatment

Long-term treatment goals for anorexia include:

  • treating any related health conditions or damage to organs
  • reducing the risk of having anorexia again
  • encouraging normal eating and exercise
  • encouraging healthy and safe weight gain
  • mental health care.

Treatment in hospital

If your child or teenager's eating disorder is severe, they may need to go to the hospital for treatment. This could happen if your child is severely malnourished or in crisis, including suicidal thoughts or self-harm. 

Depending on the situation and the age of your child or teenager, hospital admission may happen without their consent.

The goals of treatment in hospital include:

  • treat a current mental health crisis, including self-harm and suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • treat a current physical health crisis, including heart complications, electrolyte imbalances, malnourishment and dehydration
  • safely start feeding or nutrition, sometimes through a nasogastric tube.

 Management

Supporting your child when they have an eating disorder

It is important for parents and carers to support their children when they have or are in treatment for an eating disorder.

Parents and carers can give good support by:

  • keeping in regular contact with the treatment team
  • reading information about the eating disorder
  • being a good role model for healthy eating, exercise, and positive body image
  • building your child’s confidence in areas that are not related to their body or eating
  • getting your child help as soon as possible
  • telling your child that you love and support them
  • getting professional support for yourself.

Recovery from anorexia

Recovering from anorexia takes time and looks different for every person. Early help for eating disorders can lead to better chances of recovery and lower the risk of severe health problems in the future. 

Having good support from family, friends, and other supportive people can also improve recovery.

Last updated Wednesday 6th March 2024

Disclaimer

This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024


This factsheet was produced with support from John Hunter Children's Hospital.