Our team of dietitians and Intuitive Eating Specialists focus on breaking barriers whenever we talk to groups about working with our clients, many of whom have eating disorders.
There are so many misperceptions and misconceptions about eating disorders, and today I want to share something to break one of the biggest myths people have about eating disorders.
If I asked you to picture a person with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) … what do you suppose that image would look like?
Is it someone with a larger body or a smaller body?
If you are like most folks, when people think of anorexia nervosa (AN), they often picture celebrities like Karen Carpenter (singer from “The Carpenters”) or Mary-Kate Olsen as a teenager (she was one of the twins who played the youngest daughter on “Full House” – the 80s TV show).
But the fact is, less than 8% of all people with eating disorders are considered medically “underweight” or “look” like they have an eating disorder. (Yes, eight… 4 + 4.)
Despite this, people with anorexia nervosa (and eating disorders, in general) are portrayed in the media as emaciated, young white women who restrict their food intake, exercise excessively, and experience significant weight loss.
This misperception causes many cases of eating disorders to be missed and misdiagnosed.
One thing we always want our clients, as well as the fellow practitioners we work with, to know and understand is a clearer picture of what an eating disorder can look like so that you know the signs when someone you know, or even yourself, may be at risk if they’re not getting the help they need.
What Is Atypical Anorexia Nervosa?
Atypical anorexia nervosa (AAN) is a form of anorexia nervosa where people suffering from the disease are not emaciated-looking but often live in higher-weight bodies.
Signs and symptoms of malnutrition, such as extreme fatigue, being cold all the time, fainting or experiencing episodes of dizziness, and hair loss (among others), occur in all body sizes.
Still, weight stigma prevents many people from seeking treatment and health professionals from accurately diagnosing it.
How Does Atypical Anorexia Present?
Atypical anorexia presents in people of every age, sex, gender expression, skin color, religion, etc. It is not just a white girl’s illness, a common misdiagnosis problem. However, less than 8 percent of all people with eating disorders are considered medically “underweight” or “look” like they have an eating disorder.
10 Common Signs and Symptoms of Atypical Anorexia May Include:
- Intense fear of gaining weight or “becoming fat.”
- Distorted body image and dissatisfaction with one’s body
- Extreme weight loss or difficulty maintaining a genetically appropriate body weight
- Obsessive focus on food, calories, or nutrition
- Excessive or compulsive exercise habits
- Irregular or absent menstrual periods (in women)
- Extreme sensitivity to cold
- Dry skin or brittle hair and nails
- Fatigue or weakness
It’s important to note that everyone’s experience with atypical anorexia is different, and not everyone will have all of these symptoms.
It’s also important to remember that many of these symptoms occur in other medical conditions, so speaking with a trusted healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis is essential.
How Does Weight Stigma Influence Recovery?
Weight stigma, or discrimination based on weight, can harm recovery from eating disorders, but atypical anorexia in particular!
Weight stigma can come from various sources, including friends, family, healthcare providers, and society. It contributes to a distorted body image and negative self-talk. It can also make it more difficult for people with eating disorders to seek help, as they may fear being judged or mistreated because of their weight.
Imagine going to the doctor and hearing, “You couldn’t possibly have an eating disorder! Your labs are OK, and you ‘look fine,’” or “You’re fat; how could you possibly have an eating disorder? Just work harder at weight loss!”
And yes, these are words our clients have heard.
It is crucial for healthcare providers and others to be aware of the impact of weight stigma and to work to create a supportive and non-judgmental environment for people with eating disorders.
Some examples of this include:
- Using respectful language.
- Avoiding assumptions about someone’s health based on their weight.
- Providing appropriate support and care without focusing on weight loss.
Making assumptions about an individual’s health and eating based on weight or body mass index (BMI) leads to underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis of severe eating disorders.
Please print this and remember it. Please share it with others.
Tuck it into your back pocket for the times you may notice a friend or family member exhibiting some of those 10 signs and symptoms of atypical anorexia. These signs may be dismissed because of their body size or weight.
Remember, they (or you if you feel this is you) could be in the 90%+ of people with an eating disorder who do not appear as someone with an eating disorder.
Then, get that person help from a trusted healthcare provider so they can get a proper diagnosis and then the appropriate treatment.
We are all worthy of getting help, no matter our body shape or size.
Our team of dietitians can help. If you are worried that you or someone you know needs help, please reach out. Book a free call with me, and we can determine your next course of action.
Erica Leon is a Registered Dietitian and practices from a Health at Every Size (HAES®) lens. She is certified as an eating disorder specialist and is passionate about helping women at midlife, menopause and beyond to make peace with food and body image.
Erica is a highly sensitive nutrition therapist who takes the time to learn where you or your family are in the pursuit of health. Respectful of your individual needs and lifestyle, she will provide an honest assessment of whether or not you are a good fit to work together. Click here to schedule a 15-minute Discovery Call with Erica to let us know about your needs, and to see which of our Dietitians is the best fit for you!
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