Anorexia nervosa: Signs and symptoms

​​People with anorexia often hide their illness and may even deny having a problem. Because anorexia can cause serious medical complications, it is important to seek help as soon as you suspect it in your child.

Anorexia has a range of behavioural and physical signs and symptoms. Click through this animation to find out more.


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Behavioural signs of anorexia nervosa

Avoiding family meals

People with anorexia will make excuses to avoid eating meals with others, especially their family. They may say they have already eaten or schedule other activities during mealtimes to avoid eating in front of others. They may also skip meals, such as breakfast.

Limiting food choices

People with anorexia may avoid eating food they think is fattening or eat only low-calorie food. They may want to carefully check the labels of food before they eat them. They may also put an emphasis on only eating a particular way, for example following a low-carb diet, and have a hard time being flexible with different foods.

Wearing baggy clothes

People with anorexia may wear baggy clothes, or many layers of clothing, to hide their weight loss from their parents.

Becoming more irritable

People with anorexia may lack concentration and be very irritable (cranky). Because their brains are starved of nutrients they may not think clearly and, as a result, may react in a way that is out of proportion to the situation. This may result in emotional outbursts or becoming obsessed and inflexible about how something is done.

Becoming very interested in food or cooking

People with anorexia may spend more time watching cooking shows or trying new recipes but will rarely eat what they prepare. A teen with anorexia may start giving more direction to their parents about the type of groceries they want to be bought.

Spending more time with parents

Younger children may want to spend more time around their parents or less time with their friends.

Physical signs of anorexia nervosa

Not gaining weight

As children are growing, they should always be getting bigger in terms of height and weight. If a child stops growing or gaining weight, it might be a sign they have anorexia. Signs that a child has stopped growing include not needing to change their clothing or shoe size over many months.

Losing weight

In teens, anorexia is more likely to be suspected if someone loses weight rather than stops growing (which is a natural occurrence). If your teen is losing weight, see your child’s doctor immediately.

Feeling cold

People with anorexia have decreased circulation. Because of this, they may feel cold even when most people feel comfortable or warm and may wear clothes that are warmer than necessary for the weather.

Having low energy

Because of their lower calorie intake, people with anorexia usually have very low energy levels.

Feeling dizzy

Lack of nutrition and fluids, and decreased muscle tissue, can make people with anorexia feel dizzy or faint.

Key points

  • Someone with anorexia will often hide it and deny having a problem, but there are a number of behavioural and physical signs to watch for.
  • Behavioural signs include avoiding family meals, limiting food choices, wearing baggy clothes and being more irritable than usual.
  • Physical signs include not gaining weight, or losing weight, feeling cold all the time, dizziness and low energy.

Further information

For more information on a​norexia, please see the following pages:

Anorexia: Overview​

Anorexia: Medical complications

Anorexia: Treatment options

Anorexia: How to help your child at home


​Seen​a Grewal, MD, MSc, FRCP(C)
2/2/2016

Resources

NEDIC – National Eating Disorde​r Infor​mation Centre ​(Canada)

NEDA – National Eating Disorder Association (United States)

American Academy of Pediatrics – ​Eating Disorders in Children ​

B-EAT – Beating Eating Disorders (United Kingdom)

Kelty Eating Disorders​ (Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre, BC Children's Hospital)

Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario – Eating Disorders​

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