How Long Does It Take For Anorexia Nervosa To Develop?

How long does it take for Anorexia Nervosa to develop?

Anorexia is an eating disorder (ED) that is increasingly common among young people. It usually appears no earlier than adolescence and, although it affects both men and women, the risk of suffering from anorexia nervosa is greater in the latter. The early age at which anorexia nervosa is triggered does nothing more than add one more layer to the concerns of parents, professionals and researchers: if EDs are the mental health disorders with the highest mortality rate and mainly affect girls and kids in the middle of their growth stage, what can we do about it to prevent them?

In line with this, a strategy for the prevention of anorexia nervosa and other EDs is the dissemination of responsible information with the aim of making it easier to detect the pathology. Sometimes, anorexia nervosa can go unnoticed, appearing as a normal or unimportant behavior, when in fact it requires the quick attention of an interdisciplinary team of professionals. One of the most common questions about anorexia nervosa refers to how long does it take for anorexia nervosa to develop. In this article, we will address the general aspects that should be taken into account when talking about anorexia and we will answer this question.

Anorexia nervosa: what it is and what are its types

A person who suffers from anorexia nervosa is characterized by sustained restriction of food intake over time. This behavior usually seeks to achieve a thin body image and avoid weight gain, and is usually accompanied by distorted thoughts and beliefs about one’s body, food, and/or oneself.

We can distinguish two types of anorexia nervosa according to the strategy developed to avoid gaining weight. On the one hand, restrictive anorexia is characterized by limiting the amount of food ingested through the use of strategies such as avoiding sharing lunches or dinners with family or in public so that they are not seen skipping a meal, exercising excessively before or after eating, drink plenty of water in order to calm hunger, among others. On the other hand, purgative type anorexia, in addition to having these restrictions, is characterized by binge eating followed by purging behavior, which consists of inducing vomiting or consuming laxatives due to the appearance of feelings of guilt and regret for the intake.

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A pathology catapulted by the 21st century

EDs are not minor disorders, but they tend to be overlooked since there are specific behaviors that are very normalized in our culture. Throughout history, many cultures have adopted different forms of restraint and fasting as religious measures.

However, In times past, eating disorders could never reach the prevalence and magnitude that they present today. The media bombards us with advertisements, propaganda and images of thin and perfect bodies that are established as hegemonic, to which we should all aspire. Every body outside the standard is lacking. People in the 21st century are encouraged to submit to highly restrictive eating regimens, with the sole goal of losing weight, rather than being encouraged to learn to eat in a healthier or more enjoyable way.

This tendency is sustained even when it has been studied that restriction only leads us to feel more dissatisfied, to eat more than we would like and in some cases to lack of control and binge eating. In part, these characteristics make up what many authors call “diet culture.” We cannot ignore the cultural or environmental factor, since one of the risk factors that can trigger anorexia nervosa in a teenager is that he or she has previously been on a diet, diets that are everywhere.

At the same time, we are exposed to the consumption of tempting products, such as fat-burning powders and tablets or technological devices to lose weight. The paradoxical thing is that, at the same time, in supermarkets and stores we have available mostly ultra-processed products with low nutritional quality. Sedentary lifestyle and urban life make it more difficult for us to be on the move and practice sports activities. And not to mention the growing tendency to have very little awareness of what we eat due to the excessive use of distractors, such as mobile phones, televisions and other electronic devices.

About detecting anorexia early

Therefore, if at a sociocultural level we are not yet prepared to prevent anorexia nervosa by modifying these factors that are harmful to health, it is very important that parents, friends and professionals manage to detect them and act in time.

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As we said, we know that Patients with anorexia nervosa have the highest mortality rate among mental health disorders due to the large weight loss that the disease usually entails. However, this does not mean that a case of anorexia—or any eating disorder—is less serious if the patient has not lost too much weight. The severity is determined by malnutrition, that is, by the repertoire of behaviors that a person has when relating to their diet. A person can be a “normal weight” within medical standards and still have a severe ED.

It is also relevant to note that We talk about “normal weight”, with quotes, just as we could also talk about “obesity”, “overweight” and other terms of the medical paradigm. The use of this terminology is currently debated. This is not because they are not valid, but because they are focused on weight as the only meaningful measure and because they ignore the possibility that a person is at their “healthy weight” – due to genetic, environmental factors, etc. – and that they are above or below normal percentiles for Body Mass Index (BMI).

For example, there are positions that propose shifting the focus of treatments, decentralizing the importance of weight loss and prioritizing the health advances that the individual is achieving. This is because some measures, such as BMI, might provide some quick information to a nutritionist, but they don’t say much about nutritional values ​​or a patient’s behavior around food. These approaches seek to pay attention to the lack of eating control and those problematic behaviors (or problem behaviors) that the person carries out.

How long does it take for anorexia nervosa to develop?

The information presented will be useful to answer the following question: How long does anorexia nervosa take to develop? Firstly, the cause of anorexia nervosa is unknown, as is the case with many other psychological disorders. As we have seen, we know some factors that could lay the foundation for a case of anorexia nervosa to develop. Some are: having carried out a diet in order to restrict oneself and lose weight, being a woman, being repeatedly exposed to situations of high stress or anxiety or having a genetic predisposition, participating in social attitudes that promote behaviors restrictive or that promulgate discourses of rejection of large bodies, among many other factors.

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We can think of each of them as each of the materials that make up the foundation of a house: if there are not enough elements, it will not be possible to build a house (the TCA). On the other hand, the more materials available, the larger the house that stands on top can be.

Therefore, when asked about the when A case of anorexia nervosa emerges, the answer is that it will depend on the moment at which sufficient predisposing or risk factors converge in an individual. Once the disorder is consolidated and most of the characteristic signs and symptoms of anorexia appear, we talk about the course of the disease.

It is very difficult to determine how long it takes for anorexia to develop since, unlike other mental health disorders, recording its onset is a diffuse task. The first symptoms are usually detected late since, at first, they tend to be dismissed, ignored or hidden by the person suffering from the disorder; also for the people around him. Furthermore, if we consider that many patients with anorexia nervosa tend to lose weight, at a neurobiological level this affects their insight or ability to become aware of their situation. It may take only a few months to go from the “mildest” to the most restrictive symptoms, but there is also the possibility that a person will become so accustomed to certain thoughts and behaviors compatible with an eating disorder that it will take years before they seek professional care.

In short, knowing that anorexia nervosa takes a different period of time to develop depending on each person, depending on the predisposing factors that affect them at a time in their life, is intended to emphasize the importance of always being alert to the possibility that a friend, family member or oneself suffers from this disorder. This November 30th marks the International Day to Fight Eating Disorders. Therefore, sharing information regarding this issue is also a form of prevention.