When people hear “eating disorder,” they often think of specific diagnoses such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. A lesser-known but equally difficult diagnosis is atypical anorexia, which is one of the eating disorder subtypes. Atypical anorexia is a severe and potentially life-threatening disorder. In this blog post, we will explore atypical anorexia, its symptoms, risks, and treatment options so that people can better understand the condition and how to seek treatment.
What Is Atypical Anorexia?
Many people may overlook atypical anorexia or not consider it as “real anorexia” because of how the disease presents (2). Individuals suffering from atypical anorexia do not have the stereotypical appearance of someone who has an eating disorder. Because their bodies may not appear any different, they often experience significant weight stigma related to their condition (2).
Symptoms of Atypical Anorexia
As with other forms of anorexia, atypical anorexia presents as extreme dieting, food restriction, and body dissatisfaction. While they may not show noticeable weight changes, individuals demonstrate many similar behaviors as those suffering from anorexia nervosa, including food restriction and excessive exercise. Some of the physical symptoms may include the following (3):
- Significant weight loss yet being of a weight within standard limits
- Yellowing and drying skin
- Bradycardia (low heart rate)
- Abdominal pain
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Reduced immune system
- Lethargy and low energy
Additionally, they may demonstrate similar behavioral and emotional changes as shown with anorexia nervosa. Still, a significant difference to note is that individuals suffering from atypical anorexia may not see themselves as “sick” or may believe that because there are no changes in their weight, they are “healthy” or “fine.” If an individual is not severely underweight, their disorder may go dangerously unnoticed (3). Some individuals suffering from atypical anorexia may be considered clinically obese, complicating diagnosis and treatment even further.
Other signs and symptoms can include preoccupation with food, frequent weighing, excessive exercise, and obsessive calorie counting. People suffering from atypical anorexia often cannot recognize or acknowledge their condition and may display signs of denial or minimization. It is essential to understand the signs and symptoms of this disorder to identify it early on and get the proper treatment to prevent further complications.
Risks of Atypical Anorexia
Atypical anorexia can have serious long-term health risks, including medical complications like organ failure, heart problems, and even death. It can also cause or worsen mental health issues like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and substance abuse. People suffering from atypical anorexia often display signs of disordered or extreme dieting, such as limiting calories, overeating, and calorie counting. They may also resort to dangerous behaviors like purging, fasting, or using diet pills or laxatives. As there can be severe and lasting health consequences, individuals should seek help to begin treatment as quickly as possible.
Treatment Options for Atypical Anorexia
Treatment for atypical anorexia can be challenging; however, not impossible. The individual must receive support from a medical team with expertise in managing this diagnosis (4). There are many options available to those diagnosed with atypical anorexia that can include counseling, support groups, and treatment for physical symptoms. As with other eating disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy helps address the underlying causes of atypical anorexia.
Medication management may be necessary in some cases to help manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. It is vital to consult with a doctor or mental health professional to determine the best course of treatment, which the provider should individualize to meet each person’s unique needs. With the right treatment plan, individuals suffering from atypical anorexia can make positive changes to their health and well-being.
There remains a great deal of stigma regarding atypical anorexia, notably that it is not “real anorexia”. This stigma is particularly true for those individuals who may not physically appear anorexic, and this form of body shaming exacerbates many symptoms. The person living with atypical anorexia benefits from support systems that do not tolerate such views and recognize the seriousness of the disorder (5).
Support Systems for Those Struggling With Atypical Anorexia
Fortunately, those struggling with atypical anorexia don’t have to endure this alone. Support systems, such as groups and hotlines, can provide individuals with a network of understanding and resources to help them on their journey to recovery. Additionally, counselors and therapists are available for one-on-one counseling, assisting individuals in learning more about the disorder to better understand their symptoms and how to manage them. With the right support system, those suffering from atypical anorexia can begin to heal and find a path to a healthier, happier life.
Shoreline is an eating disorder treatment facility that has helped many suffering from eating disorders. Treatment modalities at Shoreline include physical and psychological support. In addition, they support the family and friends of individuals living with an eating disorder. All genders and ages are welcome at this facility. Please get in touch with the center at 562-434-6007 for further information.
- Eating Disorder Coalition. (n.d.). Facts about eating disorders. https://eatingdisorderscoalition.org/inner_template/facts_and_info/facts-about-eating-disorders.html
- Kloeppel, G. (n.d.). Atypical anorexia, An invisible battle. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/atypical-anorexia-an-invisible-battle
- Eating Disorder Hope. (2021, August 30). What is atypical anorexia nervosa: Symptoms, causes and treatment. https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/atypical-anorexia
- Vinney, C. (2023, May 8). Atypical anorexia nervosa: Causes, symptom, and treatment. VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-atypical-anorexia-nervosa-5443014
- Gwen, M. (n.d.). Top 5 myths about atypical anorexia. National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/top-5-myths-about-atypical-anorexia
Kim English is a Nursing Professor and has been teaching nurses at the undergraduate and postgraduate level since 2002. Kim has supported a family member through the lived experience of eating disorders and works to advocate for support in rural areas.