Are Pro-Ana Groups a Safe Way to Find Support for Anorexia?

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP on January 24, 2017Written by Ashley Marcin

What is pro-ana?

If you’re looking for resources related to anorexia for yourself or a loved one, you may eventually encounter the term “pro-ana.” “Pro-ana” is short for “pro-anorexia.” Pro-ana groups view anorexia as a lifestyle versus a medical condition. Many of these groups have a loyal following and share tips on how to lose weight through severe calorie restriction and other habits. These habits can paradoxically be healthy for individuals who need to lose weight, but unhealthy for those with anorexia.

Pro-ana groups also provide examples of what is called “thinspiration” or “thinspo,” and may promote a negative body image. If you’re considering joining a pro-ana support group, keep reading.

Pros and cons

Pro-ana groups can be a way for you to find a community of people living with anorexia. In your everyday life, it might be hard to find people who share similar feelings about their weight and body image. You may find the relationships you make refreshing and even comforting.

Though you can meet many like-minded individuals, it’s important to understand that anorexia is not a lifestyle to be glorified. Instead, anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where people control their weight and shape by restricting food intake. Some may vomit or use laxatives, diuretics, enemas, or other diet aids to lose weight. Others may exercise excessively to burn calories.

Pro-ana sites are often created by people who have eating disorders and who don’t have medical knowledge or expertise. Instead, they view their extreme thinness as a positive lifestyle choice. These sites may provide triggers to make eating disorders worse, such as promoting images of extreme thinness and encouraging negative body image. They may also provide tips and tricks on how to lose weight and avoid getting help. Finally, they may encourage people who don’t have eating disorders to develop eating disorders.

Finding positive support

Though you may find support in pro-ana groups, it’s not the kind of support that will help you get healthy. There are many groups you can join locally and online where you can find people who are working together to maintain a healthy weight and good eating habits.

Overeaters Anonymous is a well-known group that can help people who have food and body image issues, ranging from overeating to undereating to bulimia to overexercising. There are local chapters across the United States and beyond. The program follows a 12-step approach.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) can help you find support in a variety of different ways. You can call their support hotline at 1-800-931-2237 or even get crisis support by texting them at 741741. NEDA allows you to chat online with volunteers and offers support groups in many areas.

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) offers a searchable database of support groups on their website. ANAD also maintains a database of dietitians, nutritionists, treatment centers, dentists, physicians, psychiatrists, and yoga professionals who have helped people with eating disorders.

More resources for support: The best eating disorder apps of 2016 »

Diagnosing and treating anorexia

Treating anorexia is complicated because it’s a condition that affects both the body and mind. You may have fears about gaining weight or a distorted body image. That can make it hard for you to want to seek treatment. In many cases, anorexia isn’t about food at all. Instead, it’s a way to cope with other issues or feelings of self-worth.

The good news is that with proper treatment, you can overcome anorexia. If you’re living with anorexia, it may not feel like that treatment is possible, but it is. The first step is speaking with your doctor, or a close friend or family member who can get you to a medical professional for evaluation and diagnosis.

Your doctor may run a few tests, including:

  • a physical exam to measure your height and weight, and to assess your heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature
  • laboratory tests to check your blood count, electrolytes, and protein levels
  • psychological evaluation to ask about your thoughts and feelings around your eating habits, body image, and overall mental health
  • other tests, like X-rays, to see your bone density and check for stress fractures and other issues

Learn more: Diagnosing an eating disorder »

From there, your doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan. The primary goal of any treatment is to get back to a healthy body weight.

Some people benefit from inpatient treatment. In treatment centers, doctors can monitor your mental and physical health on a daily basis. You may attend these programs during the day or stay there as a resident.

Others can be treated at home with a mix of psychotherapy and doctor visits. Psychotherapy can be on an individual basis, or may sometimes also include family members.

If your diagnostic tests show that you are in immediate danger, you may be hospitalized to address physical issues before treatment.

There are currently no medications that are approved for treatment of anorexia. Your treatment plan will be individual to you. Relapse is common with eating disorders. If you don’t feel your plan is working, speak with your doctor about your concerns.

Complications of anorexia

Without treatment, anorexia can lead to serious health complications, including:

Anorexia can also be fatal. Even if you are not underweight, your body can be damaged from imbalances of electrolytes, which in turn can result in abnormal heart rhythms. Beyond physical issues, anorexia may lead to depression and other mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and alcohol or substance abuse. Anorexia can also occur alongside suicidal thoughts. Seek help immediately if you have suicidal thoughts.

Outlook

You can recover from anorexia. The first step is admitting to yourself that you have an eating disorder. You may not want or think you need treatment, and you may fear gaining weight once you begin treatment. Pro-ana groups can be dangerous because they promote anorexia as a lifestyle instead of the potentially life-threatening medical condition that it truly is.

Working with your doctor and getting positive support can help, especially during periods of time that may lead to relapse. Ongoing psychotherapy and doctor appointments can keep you on track even if you are experiencing stress or other triggers.

Tips for finding a support group

If you’re having trouble distinguishing between pro-ana groups and a group that will provide positive support, follow these tips:

  • Avoid groups that contain “pro-ana” or “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) in the title.
  • Consider who is writing the information in the group. Look for established organizations and associations.
  • Leave a site if you discover photos that serve as “thinspiration,” or if you notice members promoting unhealthy activities like fasting challenges.
  • Ask your doctor to recommend a local support network or online resources.

Remember: You aren’t alone. Many people have eating disorders like anorexia. Though the people you meet on pro-ana sites may make you feel like part of a group, it isn’t the kind of group that will help you get healthy again. In the end, these people don’t have your best interests at heart.

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