Understanding Eating Disorders: Anorexia vs Anorexia Nervosa

Eating disorders encompass a wide spectrum making them particularly challenging to navigate. They are incredibly nuanced and filled with intricacies that are unique to those who are struggling with them, making them increasingly complicated to understand. Not only are the disorders themselves highly complex, but the vernacular also associated with eating disorders is specific. Take for example anorexia vs anorexia nervosa; commonly only referred to as anorexia, anorexia nervosa is the disorder whereas anorexia is a symptom of. Anorexia nervosa is the most common eating disorder, impacting as many as 4% of all Canadian women.

Below is a brief explanation of anorexia vs anorexia nervosa along with symptoms of anorexia, signs of anorexia and anorexia treatments available.

Anorexia vs Anorexia Nervosa: Symptoms + Signs

Anorexia, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is a loss of appetite especially when prolonged.  An example being when one has the flu, anorexia may be a symptom of getting sick (along with fever, chills, vomiting, etc).

Anorexia nervosa, however, is a diagnosable eating disorder characterized by intentionally restricting caloric intake with the purpose of preventing weight gain. Restriction can also be coupled with excessive and over-exercising as well as the overuse of diuretics. Not only is anorexia nervosa associated with specific behaviours, but also intense feelings and emotions surrounding the fear of weight gain. 

Signs of anorexia nervosa include but are not limited to losing significant + intentional weight, isolating from friends + family + social gatherings, avoiding eating in public + around others, obsessing over one’s weight + weight gain, excessive exercise + rigid exercise schedule(s).

Anorexia vs Anorexia Nervosa: Causes

Anorexia nervosa, along with other eating disorders have no clear or singularly identifiable cause. Treating anorexia nervosa with traditional medical intervention is therefore challenging as there is not one treatment plan or solution for all who have been diagnosed or are struggling with.

Some potential contributing factors to someone developing anorexia nervosa are:

  • Genetics
  • Family history such as alcohol abuse or substance abuse
  • Personality types such as perfectionism or obsessive tendencies
  • History of trauma
  • Other mental health struggles such as anxiety or depression

Anorexia vs Anorexia Nervosa: Treatment

As anorexia is a symptom of illness or infection, is it important to treat and heal from the primary illness or infection. It has been identified that marijuana and zinc supplementation can increase one’s appetite, which can help aid in the healing process.   

Anorexia nervosa, although potentially life threatening, is treatable and a full recovery is possible. The needs of those struggling with anorexia nervosa vary. However, some initial steps are almost always required.

  • Refeeding. Typically done in a hospital or supervised environment, refeeding is required for those who are underweight and in need of intervention to help bring them to a medically stable state. 
  • Outpatient Transition. If an individual is admitted to a treatment facility, they are generally discharged after they have been refed.  However, treatment has not concluded. The next steps are to begin psychological and emotional work to address the underlying issue. This happens in the form of therapy. 
  • Therapy. Understanding the emotional and psychological roots of anorexia nervosa are critical to recovery and for long term success. This process can take a long time; patience and commitment from the individual suffering and their support network is often needed. 

We at EatWell subscribe to a holistic approach in treating not only anorexia nervosa, but all eating disorders. Exploring and understanding both psychological and nutritional components are important to one’s complete treatment.  


Q: What do you feel when you have anorexia?

A: Someone can feel a whole host of things when dealing with anorexia, impacting both their emotional and physical state.  However, anorexia nervosa is often emotionally associated with persistent and relentless intrusive thoughts regarding one’s weight, appearance, exercise, and size.   Physically however, there is potential for interrupted sleep, perpetual fatigue, feeling constantly chilled, hair loss, and sometimes irregular menstruation or loss of menstruation altogether.  

Q: Can you have anorexically unintentionally?

A: Anorexia nervosa generally develops unintentionally.  Initial tendencies and actions which individually are problematic (ie: obsessing over food or exercising excessively) are compounded and develop into an identifiable disorder that requires treatment.  The pursuit of weight loss, however, is not necessarily a precursor to developing an eating disorder. 

Q: Could anorexia permanently damage hair growth?

A: It has been clinically observed that as individuals work through their treatment and consumption is back to a sustained level, hair growth returns.

 Q: Could you recover from anorexia while pregnant?

A: Although possible, it is strongly advised that an individual who suffers from anorexia nervosa and pregnant receive care from a medical professional to ensure the fetus is receiving adequate nutrients for development. 

Dr. Natalie Mulligan graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM). She completed her clinical internship at the Robert Schad Naturopathic Clinic with a focused interest in mental health. Prior to attending CCNM, she completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Waterloo.