Dentists Can Help Detect Early Signs of Eating Disorders

Injection by Conor Lawless

Injection by Conor Lawless

In the United States, eating disorders affect 5 to 10 million females and 1 million males. The disorders include anorexia and bulimia, although binge eating, which is currently being considered for inclusion into the diagnostic manual of disorders (DSM-V) is the most common food related problem facing Americans. As with many problems in living, early detection and treatment are key to an improved prognosis. The early signs of anorexia and bulimia can include dramatic weight loss or gain, knuckle scars from placing fingers down one’s throat to induce vomiting, cooking elaborate dinners for others but eating very little despite being thin or dangerously underweight, and the use of laxatives or diet pills. For binge eating the signs to look for include rapid eating, eating large amount of food at one sitting, feeling a loss of control while eating, an inability to feel satisfied by food, embarrassment over the amount of food being eaten, hoarding of food, and secretly eating large quantities of food.

As can be seen from the above list, many of the early signs can be hidden from others making early detection difficult. However, a new study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders has uncovered an early sign of problem eating that is more easily detectable and visible to others. Rosana Ximenes and her colleagues in Brazil conducted a study to examine the possibility that oral alterations (i.e., mouth lesions, gum disease) are related to eating disorders. The study included 250 adolescents from 12 to 16 years of age. They choose to look at this group in particular because the prevalence of eating disorders peaks during these years. The teens were given self-report questionnaires designed to evaluate the likelihood of an eating disorder. All of the adolescents also underwent a dental examination. What they found was that there was a significant association between abnormal eating behaviours and oral alterations (i.e., oral inflammation). Given their findings, the authors believe that dentists can play an important role in detecting early signs of disordered eating. While the presence of these so-called dental alterations do not prove the presence of an eating disorder, these data can lead to further investigations which can rule in or rule out the presence of a more serious eating problem.

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