Anorexia is an eating disorder affecting people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. Atypical anorexia is a lesser-known subtype of the condition, distinguished by features that go beyond the typical symptoms and behaviors associated with anorexia nervosa. This article will break down atypical anorexia, including exploring its causes, symptoms, and recommended treatment options. Read on!
What is Atypical anorexia?
Atypical anorexia is a subtype of anorexia nervosa, a severe eating disorder characterized by extreme weight loss and an obsessive fear of gaining weight. Unlike typical anorexia, individuals with atypical anorexia do not meet the full criteria for anorexia based on their weight but may still experience many of the same symptoms and complications.
For example, they may have a standard body weight but still have an intense fear of weight gain and a distorted body image. They may also have disordered eating behaviors, such as restricting their food intake, binge eating, or purging.
Atypical anorexia is often harder to diagnose than the more well-known type of anorexia nervosa, as the symptoms can be less obvious. However, it is important to seek help if you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of atypical anorexia, as the condition can still lead to serious health complications.
What Causes Atypical Anorexia?
Studies have shown that individuals with first-degree relatives (such as parents or siblings) who have anorexia nervosa are more likely to develop the disorder themselves. This suggests that there may be a genetic component to the condition.
Research has also identified specific genetic variations associated with an increased risk of anorexia nervosa. One genetic variation that has been associated with an increased risk of anorexia nervosa is a variation in the serotonin transporter gene (SLC6A4). This gene regulates serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for mood, anxiety, and appetite formation.
Variations in the genes that regulate the secretion of hormones, such as ghrelin, involved in hunger and appetite stimulation, and leptin, which is involved in energy metabolism and body weight regulation, have also been linked to increased risk of anorexia.
2. Environmental factors
There are many different environmental factors that can contribute to the development of atypical anorexia. Some of these factors include:
- Peer pressure:
Peer pressure is one of the most common causes of atypical anorexia. People with this disorder often feel like they need to be thin to fit in with their peers. They may compare themselves to others and feel like they are not good enough. This can lead to dangerous behaviors, such as starving themselves or over-exercising.
- Social media:
Social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook often feature images of thin, “perfect”-looking people. This can create unrealistic expectations and body image issues, which may trigger disordered eating behaviors in susceptible individuals.
- Family dynamics:
Families who are highly critical, perfectionistic, or have rigid rules around food and weight are more likely to produce children who develop atypical anorexia. These families may inadvertently pressure their children to be thin or to meet unrealistic beauty standards. In some cases, parents may even directly encourage their children to lose weight.
- Stressful life events:
This can be anything from the death of a loved one to divorce or a job loss. These events can be perceived as being beyond your control and leaving you feeling helpless and hopeless.
Stressful events can also trigger atypical anorexia in people who are already vulnerable to the disorder.
3. Emotional and psychological factors
Emotional and psychological factors can play a significant role in developing and maintaining atypical anorexia nervosa. Some of these factors include;
Perfectionism is the need to always look and feel perfect in every way. This can lead to extremely unhealthy behaviors, such as restricting food intake, over-exercising, and engaging in other destructive behaviors in order to maintain a certain weight or body shape.
Those with atypical anorexia often have very high standards for themselves and others around them. They may be constantly critical of themselves and others and have difficulty relaxing or enjoying life. They may also have difficulty accepting compliments or praise. This need for perfection can be exhausting and debilitating, both physically and mentally.
People with atypical anorexia often have a negative view of themselves and their bodies. They may see themselves as overweight, even when they are not. As a result, they turn to food as a way to cope with their negative feelings. They may use food to numb their emotions or make themselves feel better, which can lead to a dangerous cycle of bingeing and purging, or overeating and then starving themselves.
When someone experiences emotional dysregulation, they have difficulty regulating their emotions in a healthy way. This can make them feel out of control, triggering disordered eating behaviors.
Trauma can take many forms, from exposure to a single traumatic event to chronic stressors like abuse or neglect.
Studies have found that people with atypical anorexia are more likely to have experienced trauma than those with other types of eating disorders. This may be due to the fact that atypical anorexia is often triggered by a period of intense stress or trauma.
Some research suggests that anxiety disorders and atypical anorexia may share some common risk factors, such as perfectionism and difficulty coping with change or uncertainty. It’s also believed that people with atypical anorexia often use food restriction as a way to cope with overwhelming emotions or anxiety.
Depression is a serious mental illness that can cause a person to lose interest in food and other activities. If you or someone you know has atypical anorexia and is also experiencing depression, it’s important to get help from a mental health professional.
4. Cultural factors
- Beauty standards:
The media is one of the biggest perpetrators of these standards, with images of impossibly thin models and celebrities splashed across magazines, TV screens, and social media platforms. This constant barrage of “perfect” bodies can be incredibly damaging, particularly for young people who are still developing their sense of self-worth and identity.
- Gender roles:
Some cultures may have specific gender roles and expectations, and individuals may feel pressure to conform to these roles. For example, men may feel pressure to be strong and athletic, while women may feel pressure to be slender and attractive.
- Societal expectations:
Girls and women are bombarded with images of thin, beautiful celebrities and models, and are told that they need to be thin to be considered attractive. This pressure to be thin can lead to unhealthy dieting behaviors, which can then lead to atypical anorexia.
Symptoms of Atypical Anorexia
1. Extreme weight loss
People with anorexia nervosa often restrict their food intake to the point of starvation, which can lead to severe weight loss. However, people with atypical anorexia may actually gain weight. This may be due to binge eating or purging behaviors.
Weight gain is often one of the first signs of atypical anorexia. It can happen quickly or slowly, and it can be difficult to control.
2. Fear of gaining weight or having fat
Many people with atypical anorexia restrict their food intake and engage in excessive exercise in order to avoid gaining weight. This can lead to serious health consequences, such as malnutrition, dehydration, and fatigue. In severe cases, atypical anorexia can even be fatal.
3. Making excuses for not eating
There are a lot of excuses that people with atypical anorexia might make for not eating. Some of these excuses might be: “I’m not really that hungry,” “I’m too busy to eat right now,” “I’ll just have a little bit later,” or “I don’t like the way this food tastes.”
However, the reality is that these excuses are often just masking the fact that the person doesn’t want to eat because they’re afraid of gaining weight.
4. Preoccupation with food and a refusal to eat certain foods
In some cases, this preoccupation with food may lead to restrictive eating behaviors. Individuals with atypical anorexia may start to avoid certain foods or food groups that they see as “unhealthy” or “fattening.” They may become extremely picky eaters, only eating a small number of foods that they deem to be “safe.” This restriction can lead to malnutrition and other serious health problems.
5. Refusing to eat socially
If you have atypical anorexia, you may find yourself avoiding social situations where food is involved. This could be because you’re worried about being around other people while you’re eating or because you’re afraid of being judged for your food choices.
Eating disorders are often shrouded in secrecy and shame, so it’s not surprising that someone with atypical anorexia would want to avoid social situations where food is present. But this avoidance can lead to further isolation and can make it difficult to get the support you need.
6. Difficult concentrating
If you have atypical anorexia, you may find it difficult to concentrate on anything other than food and your weight. You may become obsessed with calorie counting and exercise, and spend a lot of time thinking about food and your body. This can make it hard to focus on school, work, or other activities. You may also have trouble sleeping, which can make it even harder to concentrate.
7. Exercising excessively
People with atypical anorexia often exercise compulsively. They may work out for hours every day, even to the point of exhaustion. They may also become fixated on other forms of exercise, such as running or cycling. This excessive exercise is usually a way to try to control their weight, even though it may have the opposite effect.
- Amenorrhea: Atypical anorexia can disrupt menstrual cycles in women and girls,
leading to a cessation of periods (amenorrhea).
- Dry: Atypical Anorexia can cause dehydration, leading to dry skin.
- Fine hair on the body: Atypical anorexia can cause a condition called lanugo, which is
fine, downy hair that grows on the face, arms, and back.
- Constipation: Atypical anorexia can cause constipation due to a lack of fiber and fluids
in the diet.
- Cold intolerance: People with atypical anorexia often feel cold because their bodies
aren’t getting enough calories to maintain their optimum body temperature.
There are several treatment options available for people with atypical anorexia, including:
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that aims to identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors.
During CBT, the therapist works with the individual to identify thoughts and behaviors that contribute to the eating disorder and helps the individual develop new, healthier coping mechanisms.
The therapy may also involve exposure to trigger situations, such as being around food, to help the individual learn to cope with their fears and anxiety.
Interpersonal therapy (IPT)
IPT is often used to treat depression and other mood disorders, but it can also be helpful for individuals with anorexia. It can also be beneficial for addressing issues related to social isolation and problems with communication and relationships.
The therapist will work with the individual to identify and address any issues in their relationships that contribute to the eating disorder.
The therapy also involves exploring and resolving unresolved grief or conflicts and helping the individual develop better communication and coping skills.
Family-based therapy (FBT)
Family-based therapy (FBT) is a form of psychotherapy that involves the entire family in the treatment process. It is often used to treat eating disorders, including atypical anorexia.
FBT is based on the premise that parents or caregivers play a crucial role in helping their child or adolescent recover from an eating disorder.
The therapy involves three phases:
- The first phase involves the parents taking control of their child’s eating while the child is still engaged in the treatment process.
- The second phase focuses on helping the child gradually assume responsibility for their eating and treatment.
- The third phase involves the parents gradually reducing their involvement in the treatment process as the child becomes more independent.
FBT can be an effective treatment for atypical anorexia, particularly for younger individuals.
2. Nutritional counseling
Nutritional counseling is an essential aspect of treatment for individuals with anorexia. It can help individuals achieve a healthy weight, learn about balanced nutrition, and establish healthy eating habits.
A registered dietitian or nutritionist can work with the individual to create a personalized meal plan that meets their nutritional needs.
The meal plan may include specific calorie and nutrient intake recommendations and strategies for managing food-related anxiety and improving eating habits.
There are no medications specifically designed to treat anorexia. However, medicines may treat related conditions, such as anxiety or depression, that often occur alongside anorexia nervosa.
Antidepressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may be helpful for individuals with atypical anorexia who also have depression or anxiety. These medications work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, which can improve mood and reduce stress.
That being said, medication should not be used as the sole treatment for anorexia. Instead, the medical expert will combine medication with therapies and nutritional counseling to ensure the best chance of successful recovery.
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Atypical anorexia is a serious yet often overlooked eating disorder that requires specialized care. The causes, symptoms, and treatment options for atypical anorexia are complex and vary from person to person. Ensure you seek professional help to find the best treatment plan for you. With the proper support and treatment, recovery from atypical anorexia is possible.
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