An easy online screening tool for eating disorders

nedaw_social_1“3 Minutes Can Save a Life”

That’s the tag line for the 2016 National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, February 21-27th.  The “3 Minutes” refers to an online screening tool, designed to quickly assess a person’s risk for an eating disorder and need for professional help.

It’s well known that eating disorders, in particular anorexia, have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.  A recent study from Germany looked at the long term mortality risk for almost 6000 patients treated for some kind of eating disorder.  The anorexic patients died at significantly younger ages than patients with other eating disorders like bulimia or binge eating.  In general, the earlier deaths were due to the damaging effects of anorexia.

While anorexia may be more life-threatening, other eating disorders can contribute to significant life-long problems and shouldn’t be dismissed or overlooked.  That’s the message behind the online screening tool.  Many overweight and obese people have eating disorders that negatively impact physical and mental health.  According to Susan McClanahan of the Eating Recovery Center, medical and health professionals need to consider the possibility of eating disorders when advising these types of patients.  Standard recommendations to restrict food intake to lose weight may seem like good advice.  But if the person has an unrecognized eating disorder like binge eating or bulimia, that advice could backfire.  A binge eater who is told to lose weight will very likely fail, leading to more emotion-driven bingeing, weight gain and feelings of shame.

The situation is complicated by the fact that plenty of overweight and obese people don’t understand that they have an eating disorder.  The online screening tool is designed to cut through the confusion and give the user actionable information on risk level and resources.

You can find the screening tool here.  In the interest of journalistic integrity, I took it myself.  I was a bit confused by the first screen, which starts with a one-answer question that links to the screen: “Afraid of gaining weight or concerned about my eating habits?”  Well, if a person is obese and happily binge eating and isn’t concerned, apparently that’s the end of the survey, because there aren’t any other possible answers.  In which case, that person would not benefit from taking the survey.

The first set of questions deal with preoccupation with food and weight, as well as frequency of binges, vomiting, compulsive exercise, calorie intake and body fat.  The last questions are more specific about food and exercise behaviors in the past 3 months, such as uncontrolled bingeing or laxative abuse.  Given that my profession entails being preoccupied with food, exercise and nutrition, I wondered if I’d be flagged for an eating disorder.  I wasn’t.  But clearly if a person with a problem like bulimia or binge eating answered the questions honestly, the screen would flag them for risk and provide resources to seek help from a mental health professional.

Key word “honestly”.  Certainly a person in denial, or trying to hide their behavior, could give “right” answers and avoid dealing with an eating disorder.  Strange as that may sound, there are certainly people who think they can take care of the problem on their own.  Until they can’t.

What if you suspect you have an eating disorder?

Take the online screen.  It’s easy and anonymous.  And yes it only takes about 3 minutes.  Depending on your results, you can decide to seek help.  And that help should include a qualified and experienced mental health professional who works with eating disorder patients.  Dietitians may have expertise in nutrition and diets, but more information about calories or diets or nutrients isn’t what a person with bulimia or binge eating disorder or anorexia needs at first.  Those behaviors are driven by a complex mix of biochemical signals and emotional cues.  Until those are recognized and resolved, diet changes are not going to be successful or helpful.  In fact, well-meaning diet advice heaped on top of an active eating disorder will likely backfire.

For more information about screening and resources, visit the NEDA website.

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