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Network Matters
News and Information for the
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Network

June 2015

Recognizing and Identifying Symptoms of Eating Disorders 

With college students coming home for the summer, now is an important time to be on the lookout for patients displaying the symptoms of an eating disorder. While conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder can occur in men and women of all ages, they are especially common in college-aged women — and increasingly among their male peers.

If left untreated, these psychological illnesses can lead to a host of serious health complications. The first step in treating an eating disorder is identifying the problem; so what are some common symptoms to watch out for?

Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa

Anorexia, characterized by an unhealthy fear of gaining weight and excessive efforts to avoid doing so, is manifested in extreme food restriction and other obsessive behaviors. Anorexia sufferers often become dangerously thin as a result of a false body image, seeing themselves as heavier than they are and constantly trying to achieve a body type they consider to be ideal. In addition to more obvious signs like being dramatically underweight, possible symptoms of this potentially life-threatening illness include: brittle hair and nails; lethargy; sensitivity to cold; growth of fine body hair; yellowing skin; constipation; and loss of menstrual periods in girls and women.

Common symptoms of bulimia nervosa

Patients with bulimia display some symptoms and behaviors similar to those with anorexia, as well as others unique to their disorder. Bulimics tend to binge on large amounts of food rapidly, then overcompensate out of shame and fear of weight gain by purging; this purging can entail self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or taking laxatives. Patients with bulimia are often also affected by depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. Unlike anorexics, they are typically a normal or slightly above normal weight — but there are other telltale signs. Physical symptoms can include: constipation; dehydration; heartburn; chronic sore throat; worn tooth enamel; irregular menstrual periods; swollen salivary glands; and imbalanced electrolytes.

Common symptoms of binge eating disorder

Binge eating disorder, the most common eating disorder, is marked by extreme overeating, but without the subsequent purging found in patients with bulimia. Patients with binge eating disorder tend to be overweight or obese, and exhibit no self-control when they binge; they eat quickly and until painfully full, oftentimes as a result of anxiety, depression, or boredom. People with binge eating disorder typically feel guilty, ashamed, or sad after overeating, and may eat in secret to hide the behavior. A key symptom to watch out for is weight fluctuation, brought about by episodes of binging and consequent attempts at dieting.

Collaboration between PCPs and behavioral health practitioners, dieticians, and nutritional counselors is vital to the effective treatment of an eating disorder.

How Optum/UBH can help your patients — For complex clinical situations, Optum/UBH is available to provide consultative assistance. Practitioners can call the Optum/UBH Physicians Consultation Service at 800-292-2922. To refer a patient for behavioral health services and to facilitate the coordination of care, call Optum at 888-777-4742.

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