Can you have mild anorexia?

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“Mild anorexia” is not currently a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM). However, anorexia nervosa (AN) is a complex eating disorder, and doctors may refer to symptoms as “mild” or “severe”. Signs and symptoms may also fall under “early-stage” or “late-stage”. Some physicians also make a distinction between “disordered eating” and true anorexia nervosa. You can learn more about the distinctions between these conditions below.

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Understanding early stage symptoms of anorexia

During the early stages of anorexia, an individual may exhibit a few signs or symptoms of anorexia nervosa. The individual may demonstrate a range of emotional, behavioral, or physical warning signs of anorexia nervosa. However, it is usually not obviously apparent that the person is suffering from an eating disorder. (3)

Early stages emotional and behavioral warning signs of AN

It can be hard to identify the emotional and behavioral changes of anorexia nervosa, as it's easy for them to go unnoticed, especially during the early stages of the disorder. A person with AN generally struggles with their body perception and may feel uncomfortable with their physical self. This discomfort can manifest in many ways. They may dress in oversized apparel to hide their body and any potential weight loss. They may start eating privately instead of in front of others. They may become preoccupied with calories and start refusing to eat certain foods. They could also begin denying their hunger, avoiding meals with others, or giving excuses for why they are skipping meals. Some people will even make jokes about their bodies. (4) At first, emotional and behavioral signs may seem infrequent. Still, as the condition progresses, they'll exhibit symptoms of their eating disorder more often. 

Physical changes with later stages of AN

Someone in the early stages of anorexia nervosa may not have visible physical changes to their body. They're likely losing weight but not enough to draw another person's attention. In later stages they may start experiencing dry skin, brittle nails, or thinning hair due to malnutrition and/or vitamin deficiencies. The person with anorexia may also express physical symptoms such as dizziness, cold, or passing out/syncope due to severe calorie restriction and dehydration. They may have trouble sleeping or are experiencing stomach cramps or acid reflux. Again, these physical signs and symptoms may seem sporadic or faint at first, but monitoring these warning signs and encouraging treatment before they progress is essential.

Difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder

Disordered eating is when a person exhibits irregular eating behaviors. These behaviors can include frequent dieting, food anxiety, chronic weight fluctuations, guilt or shame associated with eating, fasting, purging, and food restriction. Still, their signs and symptoms do not meet the specific criteria to diagnose them with an eating disorder. (1) The most significant difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder is the frequency of irregular eating behaviors. (2) 

An example of disordered eating might be a bride restricting her food intake in the weeks and months leading up to her wedding because she wants to look a certain way or feels uncomfortable in her body. However, the bride returns to more regular eating patterns once the wedding ends. But suppose the women continued to exhibit irregular eating habits to the point where she is actually experiencing weight loss and physical consequences of the eating behaviors.In that case, the increased severity and frequency may qualify the women as having a diagnosis as an eating disorder. 

“Disordered eating” is more than just restricting food. It encompasses all the physical and psychological elements involved in a person's relationship with their body and food. People with disordered eating habits may count calories, over-exercise, obsess about their size, or take other measures to lose weight. If someone is exhibiting the signs and symptoms of disordered eating, they may be at risk of developing an eating disorder and should consider seeking treatment or speaking with a medical professional before the condition progresses.

Seeking treatment 

Seeking treatment for an eating disorder such as AN takes courage. The team at Within Health understands that eating disorders are serious health conditions that can put an individual's life at risk. Within Health offers support for people living with an eating disorder so that they can receive care at home. The personalized programs offered by Within Health uses the latest technology to provide real-time interactive experiences accessible to everyone no matter their shape, size, ethnicity, gender expression, sexuality, or background.

It's vital to seek help, even during the early stages of disordered eating. Early treatment and intervention often lead to a quicker recovery. Contact our admissions team to start your healing journey.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Resources

  1. Anderson, M. (n.d.). What is disordered eating? EatRight. Retrieved from https://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/eating-disorders/what-is-disordered-eating
  2. Fuller, K., & Seide, M. (n.d.). Difference between disordered eating and eating disorders. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/difference-between-disordered-eating-and-eating-disorders-5184548#toc-eating-disorders-vs-disordered-eating
  3. National Eating Disorders Association. (2017, February 26). Warning signs and symptoms. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/anorexia/warning-signs-symptoms
  4. Casarella, J. (n.d.). Anorexia nervosa symptoms: Warning signs to watch for. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/anorexia-nervosa/understanding-anorexia-symptoms

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