Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa: How dietitians treat eating disorders

April 10, 2024

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Reading Time: 
reading time
eating disordereating disorder

Key Points

  • Anorexia or anorexia nervosa is a serious eating disorder related to extreme food restriction.
  • People with anorexia can become majorly malnourished.
  • Untreated anorexia can cause severe complications, such as organ failure and death.
  • Recovery from anorexia is possible with the help of eating disorder experts, including Registered Dietitian Nutritionists.

If you're struggling with anorexia, you may already know the dangers of the eating disorder. However, learning is just the first step. 

It can be incredibly hard to break free from the voice in your head urging you to restrict your food intake. The fight against anorexia nervosa may feel relentless, often leaving you feeling drained, frightened, lonely, and everything in between.

However, while recovery takes work, it is possible to heal your relationship with food. A team of specialists in eating disorders, including a Registered Dietitian, can help.

Why is anorexia dangerous without treatment?

Anorexia or anorexia nervosa is a serious mental health disorder marked by an intense fear of gaining weight, leading to extreme restriction of food intake. However, there is a subset of anorexia called atypical anorexia, where individuals show all the signs except for extreme weight loss.

Anorexia nervosa can have a severe effect on your health. Physically, it can lead to severe malnutrition, causing fatigue, weakness, and, in extreme cases, organ damage. Untreated, it can even be fatal.

Additionally, anorexia can take quite a toll on your mental health; the preoccupation with food, weight, and body image can result in social isolation, depression, severe anxiety, and other mood-related disorders.

Registered Dietitian Rita Faycurry, RD, explains, “Anorexia can be caused by various factors, including genetics, biology, and social influences. In other words, it’s not your fault if you have anorexia. If you or someone you know has anorexia, you deserve help from doctors, counselors, and dietitian nutritionists, just like someone with cancer or diabetes would.”

What does a dietitian do?

A Registered Dietitian is a specialist in nutrition science and medical nutrition therapy. They typically spend years training to diagnose and treat nutritional conditions, including eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.

To identify a Registered Dietitian, look for an RD or RDN (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist) title by their name.

Registered Dietitians (RDs) and Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) must hold at least a Master's degree and be licensed in some states, similar to doctors. They are certified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and must update their training annually.

How does a dietitian nutritionist help with anorexia?

1. Address nutritional deficiencies caused by anorexia

People with anorexia are often severely malnourished, which leads to symptoms of anorexia like low blood sugar, extreme fatigue and a lack of energy, headaches, insomnia, depression, and heart issues. Additionally, nutritional problems and electrolyte imbalances can disrupt how hormones work, lower bone density, and fertility, and much more.

Says Faycurry RD, “If you or a loved one are dealing with anorexia nervosa, experiencing severe malnutrition makes it even harder to have the strength to fight the urge to restrict. As an eating disorder dietitian nutritionist, my first goal is to work with my clients to fix nutritional deficiencies and give them the energy to function at a base level.”

If there has been laxative misuse during the course of your eating disorder, a Registered Dietitian can work on restoring your gut health.

2. Offer support during anorexia treatment

While anorexia can lead to severe malnourishment, having to eat more amounts of food too soon can also be extremely dangerous to the body. It can lead to a serious condition called anorexia refeeding syndrome, which can even be fatal in some instances.

To prevent refeeding, a team of doctors and a dietitian closely monitor calorie intake so they can provide medical help when needed.

3. Provide a personalized nutrition plan

A Registered Dietitian will assess your nutritional needs, food preferences, and lifestyle to develop a personalized nutrition plan. You can work with your dietitian at any stage, even years into anorexia recovery.

4. Work on anorexia triggers and relationship with food

At its core, anorexia nervosa is a mental health condition; therapy is required to help people with anorexia develop a healthier mindset around food.

This involves working on self-esteem issues, body image, perfectionism, worries about putting on weight during recovery, and other co-existing issues like depression, anxiety, or trauma.

As a complement to your therapy, Registered Dietitians can help you:

  • List your food rituals.
  • Identify triggers and cues that may lead you to want to restrict.
  • Learn healthier coping strategies.
  • Build a healthier attitude towards different types of food.

These strategies and factual information about nutrition can help you fight the bullying voice in your head that drives you to restrict calories.

5. Deliver nutritional counseling

It can be challenging to eat around people during anorexia recovery. Recovery takes time, and managing people’s comments and other social pressures can trigger anxiety, a competitive environment around eating, and stress about potential relapses.

An eating disorder-trained dietitian can help people with anorexia and their support systems have healthier and more mindful conversations around food, meals, and body weight.

If you or a loved one is battling anorexia, you do not have to fight alone. 
Fay can help you receive the anorexia treatment you need, covered by your insurance.

Anorexia Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What causes anorexia (anorexia nervosa)?

Anorexia is a psychological disorder characterized by an intense fear of gaining weight. Studies show that genetics may play a strong risk factor for anorexia nervosa. There are psychological risk factors as well, including low self-esteem, negative body image, self-oriented perfectionism, depression, anxiety, and concerns about gaining weight.

Social factors also contribute to signs of anorexia. These include bullying or getting teased about body image or weight, peer dieting (competing with peers to lose weight), and psychological distress.

2. How do you know if you or a loved one has anorexia or a problem with eating?

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), symptoms of anorexia and other eating disorders include:

  • Low body weight or 'thinness'
  • preoccupation with food
  • Rigid rules around food
  • Disordered eating patterns like eliminating entire food groups, including healthy fats and carbohydrates
  • Excessive exercise
  • Mood swings
  • Being overly concerned about body image
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Gastric issues like bloating, abdominal cramps, acid reflux, or constipation
  • Irregular periods
  • Abnormalities in blood work like anemia, low levels of critical electrolytes like potassium
  • Feeling cold all the time (due to nutritional deficiencies and insufficient body weight)
  • Dry skin, falling hair, brittle nails
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive use of laxatives, diuretics, or weight-loss drugs.

3. Is anorexia related to anxiety?

Research indicates a strong link between anorexia nervosa and anxiety disorders. Some estimates suggest that 83% of people with anorexia have a history of one or more anxiety disorders.

4. How common are eating disorders?

There are many different types of eating disorders, with binge eating disorder (BED), bulimia nervosa (BN), and anorexia nervosa (AN) being more commonly known. Almost 28 million Americans are estimated to have an eating disorder or have battled it in the past.

If you think you or a loved one has signs of anorexia, consider reaching out for help. 
To get you started, 
Fay can connect you to a specialized eating disorder Registered Dietitian near you, covered by insurance.

The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Does your insurance cover nutrition counseling?
When you see a dietitian through Fay, your insurance is likely to cover the cost. Enter your insurance details to get pricing.
Check my benefits
Anthem svg logo
Blue Cross Blue Shield Logo
United Healthcare logo
Aetna svg logo
Cigna svg logo
Humana logo
Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network and has a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected, and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.