Eating Disorders Unrecognized in Overweight Teens by R Mandanah Stockton

Research conducted by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota reveals that physicians are failing to recognize eating disorders among teens who were overweight or obese at one time.

Lead author Leslie Sim, clinical director of the Eating Disorders Program at Mayo says her team discovered that diagnosis of an eating disorder in an overweight teen may not come for two years, even if the teen is having regular checkups.

Research Details

Sim’s team analyzed two cases of undiagnosed eating disorders among two teens, a 14 year old boy and an 18 year old girl.  Both were showing symptoms of having eating disorders; the boy experienced bloating, chest pains, an intolerance to cold temperatures, a lack of concentration and irritability.  The girl had stress fractures, a disruption in her menstrual cycle, hair loss and dizziness.  All of these symptoms are indicative of an underlying psychological problem.  However, because the teens were obese at one point, doctors misdiagnosed them – despite the fact that they radically reduced their calorie intake and exercised vigorously to shed pounds quickly.

The team also discovered that 35% of teens diagnosed with an eating disorder were once obese, leading them to determine that the problem is under recognized and misdiagnosed.  This is alarming; in order to be treated effectively, eating disorders need to be diagnosed early; any delay can ultimately lead to a myriad of health problems and even death.  6-20% of those who suffer from anorexia and/or bulimia eventually die from these diseases.

Eating Disorders and Mental Health

In their defense, however, physicians may not pick up on an eating disorder in a timely fashion because it does not lie within their area of expertise; anorexia and bulimia are both considered mental illnesses, yet they initially present with physical symptoms in the patient.

According to the mental health blog Mental Help, eating disorders are powered by unhealthy beliefs, the most prevalent is the message that thinness equals happiness.  Teens who ultimately developing eating disorders have the misconception that they are fat, and therefore are unacceptable and unlovable.  The “logical” solution is to rigidly restrict calorie intake and expend lots of energy through exercise in order to shed pounds more quickly.

This was certainly the case with  Samantha Clowe, a young British woman who tragically died after going on the LighterLife diet, which restricts food intake to emergency food packs containing only 500 calories.  At Samantha’s inquest, her mother stated that Samantha “didn’t want to be a fat bride.”

Sim contends that physicians need to be aware of the potential problem that may arise in their teen patients who want to lose weight – that’s because the number one risk factor for developing an eating disorder is dieting.

Study results were published in the online issue of the journal Pediatrics.

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