Learning More About Atypical Anorexia Nervosa

Due to media exposure and films like To the Bone, most people are at least somewhat aware of the mental health disorder anorexia nervosa. This disorder involves a fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image that leads to food restriction in an attempt to avoid gaining weight.

Normally, when asked about the symptoms of anorexia nervosa, the common reply will describe a young woman who is extremely thin and rarely eats. Discounting the fact that anorexia affects people of all genders, it also ignores that not all cases of anorexia include becoming underweight.

Additionally, recent changes in official diagnostic criteria indicate that there’s another kind of anorexia nervosa. Atypical anorexia nervosa mostly involves adolescents who have lost a significant amount of weight but are not thought to be medically underweight.

Even though most people don’t know about it, medical and psychiatric professionals are not so quick to discount atypical anorexia nervosa – the DSM-V indicates that it is indeed an eating disorder, teenagers who’ve developed the disorder often do not show outward signs of serious medical complications related to anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. Because of this, medical tests like bloodwork should be performed to ensure physical complications are addressed as well as emotional and psychological ones.

Atypical anorexia nervosa (AAN) is also known as a subtype of Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED). These subtypes of other major eating disorders are listed in the DSM-V. These OSFED disorders include AAN, low-frequency bulimia nervosa, limited binge eating disorder, purging disorder, and night eating syndrome, among others.

How Is Atypical Anorexia Nervosa Different from the More Well-known Form?

The Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the same DSM-V we mentioned earlier) lists Atypical anorexia nervosa as an eating disorder that matches the criteria for standard anorexia nervosa other than becoming medically underweight. A person with AAN may lose significant amounts of weight but not become malnourished or “skinny.”

Additionally, adolescents with AAN will display the same many of the same body image distortions and other disordered thinking patterns that are found in anorexia nervosa. Physical complications such as lanugo (growth of small hairs on the body) and loss of menstruation experienced by AAN patients are similar to complications diagnosed in anorexia nervosa sufferers.In some cases, they may be as extreme as those found with anorexia nervosa. It’s not unknown for adolescents with atypical anorexia nervosa to be considered medically overweight, although the disorder may cause distortions in the person’s nutritional balance and GI systems.

When the subject of an eating disorder is raised, people with eating disorders will often obfuscate and try to hide their disordered behaviors. They may wear baggy clothes to hide their body, try to represent their eating patterns as a “normal” diet, or lash out at family and friends for picking on them. They also may try to blame stress or another outside factor for their eating disorder (i.e. relationship, career, school).

Who Can Make A Diagnosis of Atypical Anorexia Nervosa?

The people around a sufferer of atypical anorexia nervosa often do not realize their loved one has a serious eating disorder, one that might require residential or outpatient treatment. Because most people only know the symptoms of “typical” anorexia nervosa, it might also be harder for them to accept there this a problem. Lack of knowledge about atypical anorexia nervosa can prevent parents and teens from seeking out professional anorexia nervosa treatment.

Since significant weight loss is not the defining factor for AAN, laypeople may have difficulty noticing that there’s a problem. Since the disorder has been added to the DSM-V, though, most medical, psychiatric, and therapeutic professionals have become familiar with atypical anorexia nervosa. They might be able to make the initial diagnosis themselves.

Once the possibility of the disorder has been raised, there are anorexia nervosa treatment centers that specialize in making a full diagnosis. They may also be able to identify any other concurrent eating disorders or co-occurring mental health disorders like OCD or depression. If you notice obsessive, distorted eating behaviors involving food restriction, counting calories, or performing food rituals at every meal, you should consider reaching out to your doctor and a local eating disorder treatment center to get started on recovery.