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 are generally considered unhealthy by medical professionals and can contribute to increased disordered eating and the health consequences associated with them.
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 for healthier alternatives.
Pro-ana groups often attract people living with anorexia who share similar disordered eating behaviors and negative body feelings.
People may find that the content of these groups reaffirm disordered eating behaviors and mindsets and may feel comforting or familiar.
Though you may 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. This disorder can have severe consequences for a person’s physical and mental health and overall well-being.
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 choice.
These sites may provide triggers to make eating disorders worse, such as:
- promoting images of extreme thinness
- encouraging a negative body image
- providing tips on how to lose weight via harmful methods
- tips to avoid getting help
- encouraging people who don’t have eating disorders to develop eating disorders
Though you may feel like you’re finding support in pro-ana groups, it’s usually not going to lead to healthier body and mind.
There are many groups you can join locally and online to find people who are working together to:
- maintain their health
- learn good eating habits
- repair their relationship with food
Here are a few groups that provide healthy support for those living with disordered eating:
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 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.
Tips for finding a support group
If you’re having trouble distinguishing between pro-ana groups and a group that will provide positive healthy support, follow these tips:
- Avoid groups that contain “pro-ana” or “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) in the title.
- Consider who’s 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.
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 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 request 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
- a 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 evaluate your bone density and check for stress fractures and other issues
From there, your doctor will work with you to create a treatment plan. The primary goal of any treatment is to help you get back to a healthy body weight and begin addressing issues with body image.
Some people benefit from inpatient treatment. In treatment centers, doctors can monitor your overall health (mental and physical) 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 it may sometimes also include family members.
If your diagnostic tests show that you’re in immediate danger, you may be hospitalized to address physical issues before treatment.
There are currently no medications that are approved for treating 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.
Treatment for anorexia is absolutely possible, and if you think you’re experiencing it, you’re not alone. Without treatment, though, anorexia can lead to serious health complications, including:
- heart issues, like mitral valve prolapse or abnormal heart rhythm
- bone loss
- decreased testosterone
- constipation, bloating, or nausea
- electrolyte issues, like low blood potassium
- kidney problems
Anorexia can also be fatal. Even if you’re 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 misuse.
Anorexia can also occur alongside suicidal thoughts. Seek help immediately if you have any thoughts of self-harm.
How to get help immediately
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
If you’re experiencing depression, these confidential numbers can help you find support and resources:
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline (open 24/7): 1-800-273-8255.
- Samaritans 24-Hour Crisis Hotline (open 24/7): 212-673-3000
- United Way Helpline: 800-233-4357
You can recover from anorexia.
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 doctors’ appointments can keep you on track even if you are experiencing stress or other triggers.
Remember: You’re not alone.
Many people experience challenges with disordered eating. Though the people you meet on pro-ana sites may make you feel like you’re part of a group, it isn’t the kind of group that will help you stay healthy.