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Is anorexia a disease?

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The medical field is based on science, but while the facts derived from this world are often considered concrete, they're much more fluid than most people realize. And that same changeable nature applies to the terms used in medical literature.

"Disease" is a tricky word to pin down, both in terms of how it's defined and in which conditions are considered a disease at any given time period or even within any given culture or geographic region.

That being said, most medical experts would agree that anorexia is not a disease. But there are several reasons why it's often misdefined or misunderstood.

 minutes read
Last updated on 
April 19, 2024
In this article

What is a disease?

The term "disease" is frequently debated or anxiety-filled in the medical world. Numerous scientific papers have been written in an attempt to refine, explore, defend, or expand upon the concept.

Generally, the term is understood as a "harmful deviation" from the "structural or functional state" of a person or other living organism.1 The definition is intentionally vague, partly to avoid defining "disease" by contrasting it to "health," an equally tricky concept to pin down.2

Still, while scientists debate the nuances of what constitutes a disease in and of itself, one important factor at least helps distinguish it from other common medical terms like "disorder" and "syndrome." “Disease” is used only when the cause of any related issues is well-known or well-established.3 This is the primary reason why, when asking "is anorexia a disease," the answer is no.

Disease vs. disorder vs. condition

Medical terms can be nuanced and often misused—even within the medical world. This can lead many people not only to wonder, "Is anorexia a disease?" but also, "Is anorexia a disorder?" or "Is anorexia a condition?" It's often described as all three, sometimes even interchangeably, in the same article.

Generally speaking, "disorder" and "condition" are understood as follows:4,5,6

  • Disorder: An abnormal condition that affects the body's function but may or may not have specific signs or symptoms. It's also often understood as a set of related problems that lead to significant difficulty, distress, impairment, and/or suffering in a person's daily life.
  • Condition: A generalized term that can indicate the state of someone's health or refer to specific illnesses, disorders, or diseases.

Essentially, a disease is a physical malady whose cause is well understood. A disorder doesn't have a specific known cause, even though it may have specific known symptoms. And a condition is more of a descriptive term that can refer to either disorders or diseases.

Of these varying definitions, anorexia nervosa (AN) is understood as a disorder.

Why is anorexia a disorder?

Like other eating disorders, anorexia nervosa is considered a mental health disorder. There are several technical reasons for this specification.

The biggest fact that would classify AN as a disorder is the lack of a specific cause behind the condition. Like other eating disorders, it can be—and nearly always is—brought on not by one known cause or even a combination of causes but by any number of various biological, psychological, and environmental considerations.

Some medical experts have argued that no mental health condition should be diagnosed as a disease, and all should be considered disorders due to the various combinations of causes that can work to develop these issues.3

AN can also be understood as a disorder based on the set of related emotional and behavioral symptoms that regularly appear together as part of an anorexia nervosa diagnosis. An intense fear of gaining weight, regular attempts to avoid weight gain, and disordered eating habits that center around the restriction of food intake are frequently all involved with AN. By the time of diagnosis, these symptoms also generally cause considerable disruptions to people's lives.

How mental health disorders are treated

Understanding "why is anorexia a disease" or "why is anorexia a disorder" has more than intellectual connotations. The difference has a significant impact on how the condition is treated.


Like nearly all mental health disorders—and unlike many diseases—anorexia nervosa often requires a variety of therapeutic approaches to ensure all physical, mental, and emotional symptoms are appropriately treated.

Seeing a mental health professional is paramount. These experts can help a patient manage the disordered thoughts and issues with self-esteem or body image that may be driving disordered eating behaviors. Some types of therapy can also work to address the environmental factors that contribute to AN.

Nutritional counseling

Nutrition counseling is also often called to help dispel misinformation about food or eating and encourage new, healthy eating habits. Physical therapy or other specialized care is sometimes called to help with specific physical effects of low body weight and other commonly related issues.

How to find help for anorexia nervosa

If you or a loved one are struggling with anorexia nervosa or any type of eating disorder, it's important to seek out help.

Reaching out to your primary care physician may be a helpful place to start. You can use this opportunity to air your concerns or ask for a medical evaluation for an official diagnosis, which is often the first step toward securing a place in an eating disorder treatment program.

You can also contact our care team at Within Health. Our specialists understand the many nuances of eating disorders and work to ensure each patient has an individualized treatment plan catered to their specific history and needs.

Eating disorders may cause significant disruption to someone's life, but with the right kind of care, recovery from these conditions is always possible.

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.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.


  1. Scarpelli, D., Burrows, W. (2014). Disease. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2024.
  2. Scully J. L. (2004). What is a disease? EMBO reports, 5(7), 650–653.
  3. Calvo, F., Karras, B. T., Phillips, R., Kimball, A. M., & Wolf, F. (2003). Diagnoses, syndromes, and diseases: a knowledge representation problem. AMIA Annual Symposium Proceedings, 802.
  4. Disorder. (n.d.). National Cancer Institute. Accessed February 2024.
  5. Condition, Disease, Disorder. (2021, November). AMA Style Insider. Accessed February 2024.
  6. What is a disorder? (n.d.). OCDUK. Accessed February 2024.


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Further reading

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