Differences between anorexia and anorexia nervosa

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The two terms “anorexia” and “anorexia nervosa” have different meanings. When you are reading health information, knowing the difference between anorexia and anorexia nervosa makes a big difference in your interpretation of what the article says.

As in all other fields of medicine, in the world of eating disorders, there is a specific language that relates to the field of knowledge. Using specific terms in specific situations is always the best way to be totally accurate when you speak, write, or read.

The problem comes in when some people who are not well-versed in the language of eating disorders, start writing and sharing articles that appear to be authority articles on the topic. Many misinterpretations can be obtained from these types of articles.

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What is anorexia?

For example, often you may see the terms anorexia and anorexia nervosa. There’s a difference between them. Anorexia means the person has lost their appetite or cannot eat. Some examples of anorexia are listed below:

  • At the start of a cold or flu, a person stops eating because they don’t have an appetite. There’s nothing psychological about the process, but they may consume far fewer calories than needed to function healthily. 
  • When someone has depression, they may stop eating or eat less than usual. They don’t have a desire to eat. In this case, the anorexia is caused by a lack of the proper neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. The reaction is driven more by neurotransmitters than a desire to willfully stop eating. This is not a universal feature of depression, and some people eat more than they typically would during depressive episodes.
  • When someone has had major surgery, they often have anorexia for a while. This happens because the body is doing its best to respond to and adapt to all the changes that have happened during the surgery. This is the body’s adaptation to the situation and is not psychological.
  • People with lung disorders often have anorexia. This may be due to the lack of adequate oxygen levels. Their anorexia is due to what’s happening physiologically in the body, not what’s happening psychologically.
  • After someone has been diagnosed with cancer and has started getting treatment – either chemotherapy or radiation or surgery, they will go through a time period where they have anorexia. Anorexia is a side effect of medications or treatment, not because of psychological reasons.

What is anorexia nervosa?

Anorexia nervosa is a specific eating disorder that affects the way a person thinks about their body image, weight, and relationship with food. As a result, the person curtails eating and eats significantly less food than their body needs to survive. 

This can lead to weight loss as well as serious malnutrition and electrolyte imbalance, and other significant health problems. Different people’s bodies respond in different ways to restriction in anorexia nervosa, and not everyone with the disorder will lose a significant amount of weight or reach a very low body weight, but medical complications are a risk regardless. Thus, one of the main differences between anorexia and anorexia nervosa is that anorexia nervosa is a life-threatening mental illness and must itself be addressed for adequate eating behaviors to be re-established. 

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Other differences between anorexia and anorexia nervosa

Anorexia in the above-mentioned conditions is something that is usually temporary. However, the longer that anorexia goes on, the more life-threatening it will become. Once malnutrition, decreased metabolic rate, and organ damage occurs, the condition becomes serious. Humans have to eat to sustain their body weight and necessary biological processes, regardless of whether they have an appetite or not. 

One of the other differences between anorexia and anorexia nervosa is that those with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa will often choose to use laxatives, diuretics, or induce vomiting after eating. This will typically not happen in those who have anorexia. Anorexia is the result of different things happening in the body whereas anorexia nervosa is a mental illness with complex causes. We don’t know exactly what causes a person to develop anorexia nervosa, but some factors which can play a role are genetics, history of dieting, experiences of weight stigma, trauma, and certain personality traits. 

Treatment for those with anorexia and anorexia nervosa

Anorexia and anorexia nervosa patients both can go through nutritional rehabilitation to restore the body to its proper health. Those with anorexia nervosa often receive therapeutic support, which may include cognitive behavioral therapy, to address the distorted views of one’s weight, body shape, and appearance. There are other types of treatment that may also be used simultaneously, such as cognitive remediation therapy, family-based treatment, dialectical behavior therapy, and different types of psychotherapy (psychodynamic and interpersonal). (1)

Those with anorexia will also go through nutrition therapy to restore the body. It is also recommended they receive treatment for the condition causing the anorexia, which may include therapy as needed.

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. Zeeck A, Herpertz-Dahlmann B, Friederich HC, Brockmeyer T, Resmark G, Hagenah U, Ehrlich S, Cuntz U., Zipfel S, and Hartmann A. Psychotherapeutic treatment for anorexia nervosa – a systematic review and network meta-analysis. Front Psychiatry. 2018 May 1;9:158.

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Further reading

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