Lately I have seen an uptick in clients who “look” fine on the outside need urgent medical care. This got me thinking about the lies that the eating disorder voice (“Ed” for short) tells us.
Ed wants to be in control (which is funny because most people with eating disorders think they are in control. Silly humans.) and will tell you lies to keep up the disease process.
Have you ever hear the voice in your head say:
“You’re not thin enough yet.”
“You are not sick enough/you're not as sick as [other person].”
“Your heart rate is so low because you work out so much”
“You’re doing fine, you can [insert ED behavior] more [often/more strictly]”
“You’re the exception to the complications, it won't happen to you.”
Or something similar?
These are often precursors to the downfall of health.
Recently, I saw someone who had been dealing with bulimia on top of being an athlete have such low iron that she needed an immediate blood transfusion in the emergency room (Thank you to the doctor I work closely with for catching that!). I had another client peeing reddish urine with a “puffy” body that she said was hot to the touch that we believe is doing damage to her kidneys (or maybe experiencing rhabdomyolysis) from restricting (she ended up in higher-level care). Another is having severe gastrointestinal issues that are most likely due to years of laxative abuse and restricting that was misdiagnosed as “gastroparesis” until she finally saw a specialist.
The thing that all of these clients had in common? They said they were “fine” and didn’t need to go to the doctor. They weren’t “that bad” in their ED behaviors.
This is what scares me. How many people are walking around with medical issues that they have become so used-to that it feels normal?
PSA: Tell all of your providers from primary care physician, to specialists to therapists and dietitians about your eating disorder. Yes, even if you haven’t told anyone else. We can’t help you if we don’t know what is going on, and some providers won’t ask.
If you are struggling with disordered eating please take this as your sign to make sure you are getting regular check-ups from medical professionals that understand eating disorders and the hidden dangers. It can save your life.
Don’t wait to seek help. You have to be your own health advocate.
Eating Disorders, A Guide to Medical Care and Complications, 2nd Edition. By Philip S. Mehler, M.D., and Arnold E. Andersen, M.D. This book was published in 2010 by John Hopkins University Press. The original edition was published in 1999. This review was written for "Nutrition Therapy for Eating Disorders" college paper (2016).
Authors Mehler and Andersen, are both medical doctors, and professors at Universities. Dr. Andersen is a board-certified psychiatrist who, with colleagues, has started programs for inpatient, PHP, outpatient diagnostic and continuing care for eating disorders. He attended medical school at Cornell, and has spent 15 years as faculty at John Hopkins Medical Institution. He has published research focusing on many aspects of eating disorders.
Dr. Mehler is a graduate of University of Colorado Medical School, and is now the Chief Medical Officer of Denver Health Medical Center. He is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS) and a professor at the University of Colorado Medical School. He is widely published, and is especially interested in research of patients with weights 30% or more below ideal body weight, and treatment of anorexia and bulimia nervosa.
The goal of Eating Disorders, A Guide To Medical Care and Complications, is to provide a single-source of most treatment recommendations for the medical treatment of patients presenting with an eating disorder. The authors provide a step-by-step approach: determining a diagnosis of an eating disorder, the purpose of the treatment team, medical evaluation, nutrition recommendations, specific complaints/ signs/ and symptoms patients present, special topics (including athletes and males with eating disorders), ethical conflicts, and information for non-medical educators. The authors use each chapter to give case studies and answer specific frequently-asked questions about the topic of the chapter in hopes to increase best treatment practices.
Eating Disorders, A Guide to Medical Care and Complications is a reference manual for both medical doctors seeing patients with eating disorders, as well as non-medical professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, dietitians, nurses, sport coaches, and others who interact with individuals at risk of eating disorders). There are 15 chapters, plus an appendix, in this nearly 300 page book. I will go into more depth on the main messages from these chapters in the following paragraphs.
Chapter 1, “The Diagnosis and Treatment of Eating Disorders in Primary Care Medicine.” This chapter (as well as many parts of the book) emphasizes that eating disorders (ED) present in “many disguised forms” (p. 3) to clinicians, and that the diagnosis of an ED is not made by ruling-out every other possible issue. This chapter focuses on risk factors that increase chances of getting an eating disorder, as well as diagnostic factors to be assessing (including cultural value of thinness), and an overview of treatment modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Tables throughout the book give concise lists of things to look for (in this chapter, list of myths and facts about EDs, for example), questionnaires, and laboratory ranges.
Chapter 2, “Team Treatment, a Multidisciplinary Approach,” explains the other members of the treatment team, why different professionals are necessary (not just one clinician doing everything), and how to effectively communicate with the team. This chapter includes the registered dietitian (RD), but explains that the physician, nurse, or RD can do weight restoration and meal plans (more on my thoughts about this later). Chapter 2 also covers the levels of care, how to decide which level is appropriate, and when to change the level of care; as well as the details of treatment approaches, including “having fun.”
Chapter 3, “Medical Evaluation of Patients with Eating Disorders, an Overview,” discusses the role of the physician in assessing clinical signs and symptoms of patients with EDs. This includes which exams and lab tests are recommended for each specific type of ED, how to read them in the context of an ED, and when labs/exams need to be repeated. Lists of physical signs and complaints from patients are given, and differential diagnoses that an ED might present as. The authors again state, “The guiding principle is that a diagnosis of an eating disorder is not made by a rule-out approach of all possible medical disorders, but by confident determination of the presence of an eating disorder through screening questions and a brief mental status examination” (p. 70).
Chapter 4, “Nutritional Rehabilitation, Practical Guidelines for Refeeding Anorexia Nervosa Patients.” It is worth noting, that this is the only chapter on nutrition in the book, and it only focuses on very underweight anorexia nervosa patients – no other eating disorder diagnoses. The majority of the chapter, although short, focuses on refeeding syndrome and enteral/parenteral feeding modes, with help from the “dietician” (yes dietitian with a “c”). Good discussion of medical complications with refeeding accompanies this chapter.
Chapter 5, “Evaluation and Treatment of Electrolyte Abnormalities,” gives excellent information about lab values associated with EDs and what they mean in regards to malnutrition, and different methods of purging. Notes on treatment of abnormal labs are given.
Chapter 6, “Gastrointestinal Complaints.” This topic is of high interest to RDs that read this book. The etiology of several issues with malnutrition and binging or purging are explained, as to what the patient may complain of, and clinical evaluation is provided. The explanations given are great talking points with patients on how to treat their discomfort. For example, gastroparesis, or delayed emptying from the stomach to small intestine is common in restriction. It explains that patients will often complain of bloating, which is worsened with a high fiber diet. Treatment includes weight restoration, resuming eating, and limiting high fiber foods like legumes and bran.
Chapter 7, “Cardiac Abnormalities and Their Management.” It is well known that malnutrition can have horrific effects on the cardiovascular system including sudden death. This chapter explains vital signs, etiology, and when to order EKGs or other tests.
Chapter 8, “Osteoporosis and Gynecological Endocrinology.” Up until the DSM-V, amenorrhea was a diagnostic factor for anorexia nervosa. With the DSM-V it was removed, but it is still important to the health of the individual to understand the hormonal issues that occur with malnutrition. This chapter goes into great detail on reproductive hormones, bone density (including DEXA readings), % of body fat needed for normal menstruation (10%, for most women), hormonal therapy (contraindicated, for the most part), and nutrition for bone health.
Chapter 9, “General Endocrinology.” Beyond female reproductive hormones, there are many other potential endocrine issues with EDs. This chapter covers these hormones, such as cortisol, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, thyroid hormones, blood glucose, and more. Complications of diabetes with EDs is discussed here.
Chapter 10, “Oral and Dental Complications.” Dentists and dental hygienists are often the first to see patients with bulimia nervosa and can be an integral player in identifying these patients, who might not be noticed otherwise. These oral signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa are listed with descriptions, and some treatment methods are given.
Chapter 11, “Athletes and Eating Disorders.” The book explains that many sports increase the risk of a person having an eating disorder, especially those that have a great desire for a specific body type or “making weight,” such as ballet, wrestling, rowing, running, and others. Female Athlete Triad, over-exercise, perfectionism in athletes, and performance anxiety are discussed, along with anabolic steroid complications. Treatment recommendations, and the “role of coaches in promoting or preventing eating disorders” (p. 191), are excellent sections in this chapter.
Chapter 12,”Males with Eating Disorders,” shows that males are often overlooked, and not treated differently than females with EDs. This chapter gives excellent insight into the differences with males, and “reverse anorexia” or the need for a “big, muscular body.” Insight into what males are most at risk, and why males diet are interesting points in this chapter.
Chapter 13, “Using Medical Information Psychotherapeutically.” The main point of this chapter is when, and how, to discuss medical information with the ED patient, to not cause fear or make it sound trivial.
Chapter 14, “Ethical Conflicts in the Care of Patients with Anorexia Nervosa,” covers modern biomedical ethics parameters, and how they apply specifically to treating patients with anorexia nervosa. This is of particular concern when a patient refuses recommended treatment. The authors re-iterate, “patients with severe anorexia nervosa give the illusion of sanity even when they are driven by deadly irrationality, failing to appreciate that anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate in psychiatry…” (p. 234).
Chapter 15, “Medical Information for Nonmedical Clinicians and Educators.” This chapter is geared toward coaches, teachers, therapists, and others with a non-medical background that work with eating disorder patients (or in trying to prevent them). Out of control dieting and excessive weight loss, healthy nutrition, exercise, and risk factors are discussed. Also discussed are when should one be referred to treatment, how to approach someone you think may have an eating disorder, as well as easy-to-read information for coaches and parents.
“Appendix: Behavioral Guidelines for Staff to Use with Patients Who Have Eating Disorders.” This chapter gives guidelines for treatment center meals and other issues, as taken from the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, Behavioral Health Services, Eating Disorder Program.
My Thoughts on the Book:
Overall, I found this book to be a wealth of knowledge. Not much is published on the medical complications and treatment of eating disorders, and this was exactly what I was looking for to use when helping the doctors of my clients give the best care. I appreciated the tables, which neatly laid out information such as lists of symptoms, lab results and what they mean, medications, and in-depth explanations of complications such as gastroparesis and cardiac complications.
It was distracting that the authors did not correctly spell the word “dietitian.” Half of the time they spelled it correctly, and the other half they spelled it with a “c” (dietician) or they wrote “nutritionist.” The authors also misspelled “monounsaturated” as “monosaturated” fats (p. 220). Furthermore, they left the RD out of the list of team members in the section on “communicating with eating disorder specialists” (p. 29), listed the “physician, nurse, or dietitian” as the person in charge of weight restoration and refeeding, did not include the RD in learning how to shop for groceries and prepare food, and the fact they said, “…once-a-week psychotherapy with an experienced advanced registered nurse practitioner” (not a psychotherapist?) (p. 44). The International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals states, “RDs are the experts, in both food science and nutrition science, trained through education and experience to understand the complex relationship of food intake to overall physiological health” (IAEDP, 2015). Furthermore, the chapter on nutrition, was short and not very informative, which confirms my understanding that M.D.’s, though able to write diet orders and give “nutrition counseling” legally, are often not well versed in nutrition, or how to effectively explain it to someone else.
This book will be helpful to nutrition professionals, like myself, in understanding what clinical manifestations eating disorders are causing, as well as how to interact with physicians sharing patients, and how to explain to patients what is going on from etiology to treatment. Despite my issues with the author’s lack of understanding what the RD does, I would recommend this book to others working with eating disorders. There are other books specifically for nutrition treatment best practices. For example, Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders, 2nd Ed., by Herrin and Larkin, references this book in their description of refeeding syndrome (p. 193, Herrin & Larkin), gastrointestinal discomfort, and in referencing other topics. While Eating Disorders, A Guide to Medical Care and Complications comes from the perspective of treating the symptoms, the fundamental goal of nutrition counseling is behavioral change (Herrin & Larkin, p. 51).
Herrin, M., and Larkin, M. (2013). Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.
International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (2015).The CEDRD in Eating Disorder Care. IAEDP.
Mehler, P.S., and Andersen, A.E. (2010). Eating Disorders, A Guide to Medical Care and Complications, 2nd Edition. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.
There is now an updated 3rd edition you can get HERE.
Libby is a Registered Dietitian focusing on student eating disorder treatment and prevention. She is working on the central coast to create wellness in individuals and the community.
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