in Healthy Eating

5 min read

Our personalities differ, every one of us is unique and has a unique personality as well. It’s an important aspect of our lives which becomes even more important when talking about food-related mental disorders. One of these is anorexia.

Article guide:

Anorexia nervosa, often just called anorexia, is a devastating disorder. In fact, it is the deadliest mental disorder, mainly due to the specific way how it progresses. People who develop anorexia are 6x more likely to die, as well as 4x more likely to develop depression [1]. Furthermore, there is a multitude of other disorders and outcomes it’s being connected to. But stating all of them is not really the point here.

In general, the prevalent pattern of progression in this disease is dissatisfaction with body image at first. Then there is a commitment to follow (often) unrealistic and unachievable goals in terms of bodily composition through an unhealthy diet.

People who are diagnosed with anorexia often starve themselves to a particular weight or particular bodily look. However, the desired outcome can sometimes be below a sustainable threshold, either due to a very low weight or a chronic lack of nutrients. And this can often lead to death.

One important thing when talking about anorexia is personality. It’s important because, if we know someone who might be at risk for anorexia, by knowing which personality traits are most often connected to anorexia, we can be more cautious and take necessary preventive measures. If such measures are taken effectively, we could lower the probability of that particular person developing anorexia.

Studying the personality of people who have been diagnosed with anorexia is not new in psychology and psychiatry. There has, however, been much debate as to whether the presence of expressed personality traits is a risk factor for anorexia or whether these personality traits actually cause anorexia.

Determining either of the above claims with impressive statistical confidence is hard. Four different models, which look at the relationship between personality traits and anorexia, exist for that reason.


Predispositional model

This model states that different personality traits are the announcer of anorexia, increasing the risk for developing it. The personality traits which affect anorexia are therefore distinct from anorexia itself, if we’re taking about the source of them both.

You can imagine this would be hard to test in a normal study, long-term studies where personality traits of people would be measured since a young age would be needed. However, that is rather costly only to test a particular model. But in the studies where they did collect long-term information about personality, the following has been found.

People with bad interoceptive awareness (how well you’re aware of your own body in an environment), perfectionism, and frequent experiences of lower mood (neuroticism), are more at risk for developing, worsening, or maintaining an eating disorder, not necessarily anorexia, in adolescence. [2]


The complication model

This model states that the observed characteristics of people with anorexia are a consequence of the disorder itself. In the sense that these characteristics were developed at a later time, after anorexia was already manifested in people.

One study supporting this idea noted that people who were starving themselves, showed anorexia-like characteristics, including certain personality traits such as obsessiveness. [3]


The common cause model

This one suggests a rather different approach. Both anorexia and the noted personality traits are suggest to be different conditions which are caused by an overlapping reason, or more of them.

A hypothetical, but statistically probable cause could be your genes. For this reason, family studies and studies with genetic twins have been employed in the past. In family studies, there would have to be four different designs (people with or without anorexia and with or without certain, highly expressed personality traits) to thoroughly test whether people’s genes actually have a significant effect on anorexia. Sadly, no study with this rigor has been performed so far. One, which has been performed, with a slightly altered design, noted there seems to be a common cause for so-called restricting type anorexia (RAN). [4]


Pathoplasty model

The last model suggests that personality disorders or different traits may influence how anorexia manifests itself and how it later progresses. This one doesn’t have to have any evidence supporting it, or showing how personality traits could exactly influence the manifestation and progression of this disease. Some research does show that certain obsessive-compulsive personality traits together with fear of maturity can predict worse outcomes in people who were diagnosed with anorexia. [5]

We can see these four models are quite distinct from one another, implying different roles of personality in this disorder. What is certain, however, is that different personality traits do play a role in anorexia. A more rigorous study of the exact nature of this relationship will no doubt help people who suffer from this disorder greatly. The main reason being personalized care of people from have different personality traits.


What about a “typical” personality type of someone with anorexia?

There are also some traits which seem to be often present in people with the aforementioned restrictive type of anorexia. Such people are often considered to be more constrained, conforming, perfectionist, obsessional, and rigid.

These traits seem to occur often in patients with this type of anorexia, it also manifests itself in a very distinct way.

All in all, personality has an important role in everyday life, but more importantly, it can significantly affect how people with anorexia respond to their environment. By acknowledging that, we can respond better to certain types of personality and give them an optimal treatment.

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  1. Really interesting! Juvenile Training School of Yachimata, Correction Bureau, Japan Ministry of Justice 1766-3-201 Takidai, Yachimata, Chiba 289-1123, Japan.