Anorexia nervosa is a potentially life-threatening eating disorder but how do you know if you have anorexia, what are the symptoms and how can you get help?

A young person is holding a cup of tea, thinking about where to find support for anorexia

What is anorexia?

Anorexia is a compulsive mental illness where the sufferer becomes obsessed with losing weight or staying thin. They do this in a number of ways including skipping meals, cutting out certain foods, excessively exercising or sometimes binge-eating and then throwing up. Often they have a distorted view of their body and think they’re heavier than they are.

Why do you get anorexia?

Although anorexia is called an ‘eating disorder’ it’s actually a mental health condition, often troubling people with low self-esteem who find it hard to deal with anxiety and stress. More often than not, people with anorexia have other issues in their lives making them unhappy and use food as a way of feeling more in control.

“It usually starts with just restricting your diet,” says psychotherapist Andrea Scherzer. “Like cutting out carbs, for example. You start losing weight; get a buzz from that, and so start cutting out more food.”

This thinking can then become more and more obsessional until the eating disorder can start to dominate certain parts of your life.

What are the symptoms of anorexia?

Anorexia has physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms.

Behavioural symptoms:

  • Lying about eating
  • Cooking food for everyone else
  • Obsessively exercising
  • Obsessively doing certain things in a certain way (‘ritualistic behaviour’)
  • Trying to make everyone happy

Physical symptoms:

  • Severe weight loss
  • Frequently feeling cold
  • Hair falling out or fine hair growing all over your body
  • Constipation and stomach pains
  • If you’re a girl your periods stop
  • Feeling irritable and moody with a difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness and problems sleeping

Psychological symptoms:

  • Lots of sufferers describe anorexia as having a voice in their head, constantly telling them they’re fat and worthless
  • Constantly thinking about food and calories
  • Believing that you’ll be ‘happy’ once you reach a certain weight

Help with anorexia

In order to beat anorexia, you need to recognise you need help and want to get better.

Realising you need help – and being open to getting it – is the important first step. Try talking to someone you trust about what’s going on such as a close friend or family member. We know this may be scary if you’ve been keeping it a secret for so long, but you deserve help and support for what you’re going through. If you’re not ready to talk to a close friend or family member we recommend you speak to your GP ASAP as they can refer you to best person to help. Read our article about treatments for eating disorders for more information. There are also plenty of online support groups that offer advice via email and over the phone – Beat (beating eating disorders) has a helpline with a call back service.

What are the long-term risks of anorexia?

Many people recover from anorexia and go on to have a better relationship with food and themselves.

But if left untreated over a long period of time anorexia can severely damage your health. Osteoporosis, where your bones get very brittle and can break easily, is a common side effect and is also irreversible.

If you’re female an eating disorder like anorexia can sometimes permanently affect your fertility.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all eating disorders – another reason to get help if you can. Death is usually from heart failure, caused by the body going into starvation mode.

Given these long-term risks, it is therefore really important to get help as soon as you notice any symptoms by following the steps above.

Next Steps

  • Beat help people overcome eating disorders through helplines, online support and self-help groups. Call 0808 801 0677 or, if you're under 18, call their Youthline on 0808 801 0711.
  • Men get eating disorders too (MGEDT) run discussion boards for men with eating disorders where you can get peer support.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.


Updated on 05-Jul-2016