The body relies on good nutrition to help people reach their full potential. This is especially important during adolescence, when the body experiences heavy growth spurts.
But if someone develops an eating disorder during this critical time, it may lead to stunted growth.
It may not be possible to make up for these missed inches—and those with untreated eating disorders risk losing even more height during their lifetime.
Still, working on recovery can help prevent future nutritional issues, including stunted growth.
Why Does Anorexia Stunt Growth?
Anorexia nervosa (AN) is an eating disorder that involves placing a strict limitation on food, drink, and other sustenance put in the body. It often leads to malnutrition, and, in severe cases, the prolonged lack of nutrients can bring the body to a point of starvation.
Nutritional deficiencies are complex, and can have a number of adverse effects, including stunted growth.
Again, the issue is particularly pronounced in people who develop AN earlier in life, as malnutrition may interfere with the changes in the body that lead to physical growth.
Time of Onset
While symptoms of AN can take place at any point during a person’s life, the condition commonly first develops during adolescence.  It’s thought that the many hormonal changes kicked off by puberty can trigger certain genes that make someone more susceptible to developing an eating disorder.
Still, this is also one of the most sensitive times in someone’s life when it comes to physical growth.
During adolescence, the bones are capable of growing as long as the epiphyses, or growth plates. These plates are only open for a certain amount of time, with changing hormone levels working to start closing them throughout puberty and young adulthood.
If the body starts experiencing the effects of anorexia before those plates are closed, it’s possible for someone to miss out on all their potential height. Malnutrition can make it difficult for the body to produce everything it needs to grow, and the plates can close before someone fills them out. 
The Impact of Gender
Biological males may experience this symptom of anorexia nervosa less severely than biological females.
Those born in male bodies generally have a longer physical growth period than those born in female bodies, with some having as many as two more years with open growth plates. 
If a biological male develops AN during adolescence, these extra years may play a pivotal role, giving them a bit more time to find treatment for their condition and grow into their plates before they close.
Can People With Anorexia Nervosa Regain Height After Treatment?
While treatment for anorexia nervosa is crucial for restoring many aspects of mental and physical health, it’s unfortunately not likely to restart or restore the physical growth affected by the condition.
One recent study bore this limitation out. Researchers followed a group of teenage girls who all struggled with AN, and measured their heights throughout the treatment period. Their findings included: 
- Subtle early stunting. The girls weren’t as tall as expected when treatment started, but the results weren’t dramatic.
- Worsening with time. As the girls grew, it became clear they wouldn’t reach the national average height for females.
- A lack of treatment options. While many of the issues associated with AN receded after the girls received help, none of the patients became taller or reached a height the researchers expected.
It may be possible for someone with AN to continue growing, if the condition is recognized and properly treated early on. But unfortunately, many people don’t receive a diagnosis or seek out help until after their growth plates have already started closing.
Long-Term Effects of Anorexia Nervosa on Physical Growth
People who struggle with anorexia nervosa can build healthier and stronger bodies with the help of treatment. But if the condition persists, the problems associated with physical growth may become worse over time.
Restricted eating deprives cells of the nutrients they need to grow. It can also deplete the body’s reserve of healthy cells, which are needed to replace those that get broken down or otherwise filtered out.
Anorexia and Bone Growth
This issue can be especially problematic in the bones. People may develop weakened and thin bones within as little as a year of developing anorexia nervosa. 
This lack of bone density is directly related to malnutrition, which may not be easy to spot at first. But if disordered eating behavior continues, it can lead to additional problems, including osteoporosis.
This condition can also lead to people getting shorter. Weaker bones can be more easily compressed or broken, chipping away at someone’s height little by little.
Many don’t realize they’re experiencing the issue until the shrinking has already begun. 
Finding Treatment for Anorexia Nervosa
Early intervention and treatment for AN is critical for preventing all manner of health consequences, including stunted growth. If you or a loved one are struggling with aspects of this dangerous disorder, it’s time to seek out help.
You may want to start by talking to a medical professional. Physical doctors and mental health specialists are typically good sources of information and advice, and may be able to direct you to a helpful program.
Treatment may include medical interventions like medication, nutritional supplements, and medical testing. And equally as important as addressing physical concerns is working through the mental health aspects that underpin so many eating disorders.
It may seem like a lot to take in, deal with, or get through. But treating the issues associated with AN will help lead to a healthier, happier future—and finding help is always possible.
- Neale, J., & Hudson, L. D. (2020). Anorexia nervosa in adolescents. British journal of hospital medicine, 81(6): 1–8.
- Eating disorders in adolescents: Principles of diagnosis and treatment. (1998). Paediatrics & child health, 3(3):189–196.
- Misra, M. (2008). Long-term skeletal effects of eating disorders with onset in adolescence. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1135: 212–218.
- Modan-Moses, D., Yaroslavsky, A., Pinhas-Hamiel, O., Levy-Shraga, Y., Kochavi, B., Iron-Segev, S., Enoch-Levy, A., Toledano, A., Stein, D. (2021, January 1). Prospective Longitudinal Assessment of Linear Growth and Adult Height in Female Adolescents With Anorexia Nervosa. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 106(1): e1–e10.
- Peterson, K., Fuller, R. (2019). Anorexia Nervosa in Adolescents: An Overview. Nursing, 49(10): 24-30.
- Osteoporosis. (2017, June). National Institute on Aging. Accessed August 2022.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published February 22, 2023 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on February 22, 2023, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC