Learn about anorexia nervosa

Key points:

  • Anorexia is a serious mental illness, not a lifestyle choice or diet
  • People with anorexia restrict both how much and what is eaten
  • Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness
  • Anyone can be affected by anorexia, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity
  • Anorexia has serious physical and mental health complications
  • Recovery is possible; early treatment leads to the best results

Anorexia is a serious mental illness characterised by:

  • A low weight
  • A fear of gaining weight
  • A desire to be thin
  • A distorted body image

People with anorexia restrict how much and what they eat, and may use laxatives, diuretics, vomiting or excessive exercise to get rid of unwanted calories. Anorexia usually develops during adolescence, but can appear at any age or stage of life for both men and women. It’s a myth that only young women experience anorexia.

What causes anorexia?

There’s no single cause but there are risk factors that increase the likelihood of anorexia developing. These can be cultural, psychological, or biological. Certain behaviours and personality traits such as dieting, poor self-esteem, and perfectionism are common in people with anorexia.

Warning signs of anorexia

  • Excessive exercise and/or food restriction
  • Secretive behaviour surrounding eating or exercise
  • Obsessive rituals around food
  • Obsessive interest in cooking or preparing food for others
  • Aggression or anxiety when forced to eat “forbidden” foods
  • Potentially – self-harm, suicide attempts, substance abuse
  • Distorted body image
  • Self-evaluation based largely or entirely in terms of weight and appearance
  • Preoccupation or obsessive thoughts about food and weight
  • Refusal to accept that one’s weight is dangerously low despite warnings from family, friends and/or health professionals
  • Low self esteem
  • Mood swings
  • Clinical depression
  • Withdrawal from interpersonal relationships


Recovery is possible; early treatment leads to the greatest success. If you recognise the signs in someone you know, it’s important to seek help as early as possible. Treatment for anorexia involves restoring the person to a healthy weight, treating underlying psychological issues, and stopping the disordered behaviours. It is very difficult to recover from anorexia without professional help. To take the first step, call your GP or contact the EDV Helpline on 1300 550 236, help@eatingdisorders.org.au.