How an Eating Disorder Is Diagnosed

Eating disorders—formally classified as "feeding and eating disorders" in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (DSM-5)—represent a group of five complex mental health conditions that can seriously impair health and social functioning.

Eating disorders can be diagnosed by medical physicians or mental health professionals, including psychiatrists and psychologists.

Although there is no one laboratory test to screen for eating disorders, a doctor can use a variety of physical and psychological evaluations as well as lab tests to determine a diagnosis.

Woman sitting at restaurant table looking down in contemplation at a cup of water, a croissant, and coffee in front of her.

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Self Check/At Home Check

Eating disorders are diagnosed based on a variety of information. Healthcare professionals are looking at the signs and symptoms of an eating disorder along with your:

  • Eating habits
  • Signs and symptoms of other mental health disorders
  • Medication or medical issues that might be relevant

While you can’t get an official diagnosis by taking an online quiz, the National Eating Disorder Foundation does have a quick quiz you can take to see if you have a reason to be concerned.

However, regardless of the quiz results, if you feel you may have an eating disorder or may be on the verge of an eating disorder, seek professional help as soon as possible. The earlier you get professional help, the sooner you can feel in control of a healthier you.

Physical Examination

No matter how uncomfortable it may feel, it is crucial to seek help for a potential eating disorder, which can be life-threatening.

When you visit your healthcare provider about an eating disorder, they will ask questions about:

  • Your eating habits
  • How long these habits have been happening
  • If you think something specific triggers these behaviors or thoughts

Mental Health Questionnaire

Since mental health conditions often coexist with an eating disorder, your doctor may ask you to fill out a questionnaire specific to your mental health over the past few weeks.

As eating disorders can affect nearly every organ system, your doctor will perform a complete physical exam.

Your doctor will also discuss possible treatment options that are likely to help you overcome this eating disorder.

Labs and Tests

While there is no one specific lab test to confirm an eating disorder diagnosis, there are some tests your doctor may request to check your overall health.

Ruling Out Underlying Conditions

Your doctor will want to make sure you don’t have an underlying health condition either triggering your eating disorder or something caused by an eating disorder.

Lab Work

Your doctor will likely want a blood test to check your complete blood count (CBC), along with your:

  • Electrolytes
  • Liver function
  • Kidney function
  • Thyroid function

These labs are essential to check your overall health.

Thyroid Function

Checking the thyroid is important since it affects so many parts of the body and can cause you to lose or gain weight quickly. It’s also possible your thyroid function is impacted by an eating disorder, creating a bigger problem.

The results from these tests will help your doctor see if you have:

X-ray

In some cases, your doctor might request an X-ray since eating disorders are a factor for low bone density.

If this is the case, it is easier for you to break a bone or possibly have osteoporosis.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

Many people with an eating disorder will have an electrocardiogram (ECG) done to check the rhythm of their heart.

Someone with an eating disorder is at high risk for having a heart that doesn’t beat with a regular rhythm.

If you catch an irregular heartbeat early, you’ll likely be able to prevent a more serious condition—or even death.

Differential Diagnosis

When you discuss a possible eating disorder with your healthcare provider, they will also consider other possible conditions.

Anxiety, Depression, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Many people who struggle with an eating disorder also tend to struggle with some form of:

Sometimes these mental health conditions start before the eating disorder. Other times, they may be part of the outcome of having an eating disorder.

A significant majority of people diagnosed with an eating disorder also have an additional mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, or OCD.

Addiction

Alcohol and drug abuse are quite common for those struggling with an eating disorder. In fact, some studies show that nearly 50% of those struggling with an eating disorder also struggle with addiction.

While many people think of alcohol or hardcore street drugs when thinking of substances of abuse, people with eating disorders can abuse a variety of over-the-counter (OTC) medications as part of their disorder, including:

  • Laxatives
  • Diuretics
  • Diet pills

Diabulimia

Diabulimia is the mainstream name for an eating disorder where a person with insulin dependent diabetes restricts insulin in order to lose weight.

Many people with type 1 diabetes will lose a lot of weight before receiving a diabetes diagnosis. Once diagnosed and insulin treatments start, you begin to put on weight again. This increase in weight can be stressful and cause some vulnerable individuals to adjust their insulin dose against medical advice—or stop it altogether—so the weight gain will stop.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy is a very stressful time for anyone. There are a lot of changes and triggers that may bring on symptoms or behaviors of an eating disorder—especially if you’ve struggled with self-image and/or eating disorders in the past. 

A Word From VeryWell

If you feel you might have an eating disorder, the most important thing you can do is seek professional help. Finding professional help will benefit you by building skills to handle the underlying emotions and beliefs that often drive eating disorders.

You don’t have to reach a goal or be “sick enough” to get help. If you feel you are struggling with your eating habits, now is the perfect time to find help. With the proper treatment and a little determination, you can overcome an eating disorder.

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Article Sources
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