What is anorexia?
The word “anorexia” comes from the ancient Greek orexis, which means appetite. The prefix “an-” is also derived from Greek, and means “not” or “without.”1
When put together, they create a term that refers to one of the hallmark symptoms of anorexia nervosa: A lack of appetite. But “anorexia” is a noun in and of itself, describing this same condition.
In other words, “anorexia” refers simply to a lack of appetite, or disinterest in food. On its own, it has nothing to do with the related issues involved with anorexia nervosa, such as a preoccupation with body weight, shape, and size.
Examples of anorexia when it’s not describing anorexia nervosa include:
- Losing your appetite when you have a cold, the flu, or some other type of infection.
- Losing your appetite as a symptom of depression. (This actually happens due to a lack of activity in certain areas of the brain, which has been connected to major depressive disorder.2)
- Anorexia associated with postoperative fatigue, a suite of symptoms that commonly impact people recovering from major surgeries.3
- Having no appetite or interest in food while battling cancer, a symptom which can be caused by many aspects of the disease and treatments for it.4
It's also possible for anorexia to manifest as a symptom of other eating disorders, including avoidant and restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and some types of bulimia nervosa.
What is anorexia nervosa?
From ancient Greek, nervosa directly translates to “nervous.” But in modern medicine, nervosa is frequently used to distinguish a mental health disorder.
When it comes to anorexia nervosa, the term refers to the actual medical condition, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the many various symptoms it entails.
A lack of appetite or disinterest in food is one of the primary symptoms of anorexia nervosa. But AN is comprised of many other facets, both physical and psychological, including:6
- An intense fear of gaining weight
- Disturbed body image (imagining oneself as bigger than one actually is)
- Other eating habits or types of behavior that may prevent or interfere with weight gain, including excessive exercise, self-induced vomiting, and misusing laxatives
- Significantly low body weight, relative to age, sex, developmental trajectory and physical health
And while a majority of people with anorexia nervosa experience anorexia as part of the condition, it’s also possible for someone to experience anorexia separately from these other factors.
Similarly, someone with anorexia nervosa may actually feel hungry, but continue to limit food intake, due to the other aspects of their disorder.
Anorexia vs. anorexia nervosa: Other differences
Anorexia is not always related to anorexia nervosa, and that includes the ways in which these two conditions develop.
Anorexia is frequently a symptom of some other disorder, disease, illness, or experience. It’s usually a temporary condition, caused by everything from dehydration and physical fatigue to stress and maladaptive emotional responses.7 And in most cases, once these underlying issues are addressed, anorexia will no longer occur.
Anorexia nervosa is a mental health condition derived from a combination of emotional, genetic, and environmental causes. It is generally considered a chronic condition, meaning one that has long-lasting effects. And while recovery and remission from the thoughts and behaviors associated with AN is possible, relapse does occur in many cases.
Treatment for anorexia and anorexia nervosa
When anorexia is severe or chronic, it can have some effects in common with anorexia nervosa. Both conditions frequently lead to weight loss, and when someone continues to limit food intake and lose weight, it's possible to develop malnutrition.
The best treatment for malnutrition depends on its severity, but generally it's addressed with diet or lifestyle changes, nutritional supplements, nutritional education or counseling, and, in severe cases, medically-assisted refeeding.8
Overall, however, anorexia can typically be treated by addressing the underlying issue(s) causing the symptom.
Anorexia nervosa, on the other hand, is a serious mental health condition, which nearly always requires targeted medical care and assistance. A combination of psychotherapy, meal monitoring, medication, and other treatments are generally used to help people overcome this eating disorder and the many medical complications it can lead to.9