Atypical Anorexia

Monday, Aug 01  •  

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Anorexia Nervosa is one of the most well-known and most discussed eating disorders characterized by abnormally low body weight, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted perception of weight.

What many people might not realize is that there is a similar type of eating disorder called Atypical Anorexia Nervosa, a diagnosis that falls under Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED). Individuals with atypical anorexia meet many of the same characteristics as one with anorexia, but not all. For example, atypical anorexia may apply to someone who is restricting their food intake but is not considered “underweight.” 

Signs and Symptoms of Atypical Anorexia

Although someone with atypical anorexia may not appear “underweight,” many other signs can indicate that someone is suffering from this illness. Some of those signs and symptoms include:

  • Weight loss, but not to the point of becoming underweight
  • Intense fear of weight gain or becoming fat
  • A distorted perception of weight or body shape
  • Engaging in food restriction and other compensatory behaviors such as excessive exercise
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) – a preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in appearance that are not observable or appear slight to others
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – intrusive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that trigger intensely distressing feelings leading to repetitive behaviors (compulsions) aimed at reducing the distress
  • A general feeling of being uncomfortable or unhappy with eating in front of others
  • An intense focus on calorie counting, food groups, or nutrition labels
  • Cooking for others but not eating with them
  • Making frequent comments about feeling “fat” or “bloated”
  • Avoiding social situations that revolve around food

Dangers of Atypical Anorexia

Although atypical anorexia and anorexia are both serious illnesses, some people assume that anorexia is more serious because of the extremely low body weight that occurs. A 2016 study of adolescents with atypical anorexia showed that the adverse psychological and physical effects of the illness were just as intense as those experienced by people with anorexia. Atypical anorexia and anorexia both come with health consequences and psychological distress, and both are worthy of professional treatment. 

Some examples of the serious physical effects of atypical anorexia include:

  • Low blood pressure and lightheadedness
  • Exceedingly low heart rate
  • Bone and muscle loss or damage
  • Damage to vital organs
  • Fertility issues due to the loss of menstruation

Stigma Around Atypical Anorexia

Weight bias and weight stigma are a long-ingrained part of our society. Many people in larger bodies may not be diagnosed with an eating disorder—even when they show clear signs of one—simply because of their weight. Even if people believe that a person in a larger body does indeed have an eating disorder, they may think that it is not as dangerous as an eating disorder that causes someone to be “underweight.”

Weight bias and weight stigma make it so much more difficult for someone with atypical anorexia to reach out for help. Again and again, diet culture sends the message that people with larger bodies must lose weight, but health cannot be measured by size, and for many, dieting is incredibly damaging. 

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of atypical anorexia or another eating disorder, do not hesitate to reach out for help!

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