What doctors must know about eating disorders.

I want your input. I need to hear your voices. For EDAW 2015, I have volunteered to present to two medical residency programs—one in Boston, MA and one in Providence, RI on what doctors need to know about eating disorders.  I've incorporated recommendations from twitter responders and from Aspire, but I welcome more input. Here's what I have to share with new doctors so far:

  • Avoid the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach. Patients rarely volunteer behaviors they feel ashamed of—bingeing, purging, diet pill and laxative abuse.  So providers need to ask. Nicely. Casually. Non-judgmentally. Include basic ED screening questions at routine visits.
  • Early action is not just for college admissions. Eating disorders are best identified early and treated promptly. We wouldn’t simply wait it out to see if blood sugars simply turn around in a patient with type 1 diabetes. Take eating disorders as seriously as you would cancer, or
    The time is now for improving medical management
    of eating disorders.
    diabetes, or heart disease. Because like these medical conditions, they cause physical damage, and impact emotional wellbeing. And did I mention that left untreated they can be fatal?
  • Relying on size is a seismic mistake. People of all sizes suffer from eating disorders. And because eating disorders in those of “normal” weight are often missed, they may be more chronic and challenging to overcome. Patients with anorexia can have high BMIs; they severely restrict their intake, are ruled by food rules and fear weight gain; their restriction impacts their ability to function, their mood, their blood pressure, body temperature, blood counts and thyroid level, fertility, bone density, and GI function.
  • ED sufferers want help. People with eating disorders ultimately want to be free of their disorder. They are not just being difficult. They may also be struggling with depression, anxiety and OCD making recovery more challenging. They are
    suffering with their symptoms making day-to-day life unbearable. In fact, the risk of suicide is higher in those living with eating disorders and is a major cause of death in this population.
  • Be careful what you ask for. Before recommending that your ‘overweight’ patients lose weight, do some assessing.  Has their weight or weight percentile been normal for them? What behaviors might be better addressed versus focusing on their weight? Diets can be the tipping point, precipitating an eating disorder. Striving to achieve and maintain a lower than usual weight contributes to maintenance of eating disorders.
    You can't simply tell by appearance that
    someone is suffering.
  • Guys (yes even straight guys) get eating disorders. Seemingly healthy, fit, guys, and overweight boys and men live with eating disorders. Like girls and women, they may restrict and be fearful of gaining, binge eat, purge, and compulsively over exercise. EDs have no gender limits.
  • Eating disorders may start in preadolescence, or at age 20, or in the 40s.  Eating disorders don’t expire when kids reach adulthood, or when adults mature. Individuals with EDs may first present for care after decades living with their ED or may have a late adult onset during a transition period in late adult hood.
  • Read between the lines and ask the right questions. Please don’t praise a patient’s weight loss. Would you say great job if they lost due to cancer? Do focus on reinforcing healthy actions, not numbers. Rather, ask:
    •  "What kinds of changes have you made?" 
    • "How do you feel?" 
    • "What percentage of your thoughts are spent thinking about food and eating?"
    • "How’s your energy level?" 
    • "How are you managing with these changes?"And note that healthy eaters are not always so healthy. Ask why your patient became a vegetarian/vegan. Why are they following a gluten-free or low carb diet?
Families play a critical role in
supporting a child's recovery.
  • Parents are necessary supports for recovery. Overwhelmingly, parents need to be brought in to assist recovery. And the only thing we can blame parents for when it comes to eating disorders is their genes. 
  • Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions. They have genetic, environmental and nutritional underpinnings. They don’t just “run their course” or become “out grown”. They require treatment by experienced providers. ASAP. Waiting may be lethal.
  • If you don’t know, please ask! Check out AEDs medical resource guide and this. Seek out providers to collaborate with who are part of national or regional eating disorder organizations like AED, NEDA, iaedp and MEDA.


Please share this with your medical providers. And with your friends. And twitter followers. And with your Facebook friends.

Eating disorders require education and a break from the commonly help practices and beliefs. And you can help make it happen.

Thanks again to those who have already shared their ideas that were incorporated into this post.
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