Can Testing This One Simple Thing Help Diagnose Eating Disorders Earlier?

Abnormal electrolyte levels can help doctors identify eating disorder cases a little over a year earlier than they normally would have been diagnosed, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open. Researchers from the Ottawa Hospital-Riverside Campus in Canada analyzed provincial health data from Ontario for people aged 13 and older between 2008 and 2020 in order to track their electrolyte levels and compare them with the number of participants who were subsequently diagnosed with eating disorders (via HealthDay News).

The study's findings revealed that 18.4% of those who were diagnosed with eating disorders also experienced preceding electrolyte abnormalities, with an average time period of 386 days between the earliest detection of electrolyte abnormalities and an official eating disorder diagnosis. As a result, researchers conclude that electrolyte abnormalities may serve as a precursor to eating disorder diagnoses in the future. "These results suggest that otherwise unexplained outpatient electrolyte abnormalities may serve to identify individuals who should be screened for an underlying eating disorder," the study's authors wrote.

Eating disorders can deplete electrolyte levels

It is common for people with eating disorders to have abnormal electrolyte levels, according to Dr. Gregory Hundemer, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa and lead author of the study (via CNN). That's because electrolyte levels can be depleted by certain behaviors associated with eating disorders, like restrictive eating, vomiting, dehydration, and taking laxatives. Since eating disorders often go undetected and untreated, especially among men, LGBTQ people, people of color, older adults, and larger-bodied people, having an early detection method can help more people get the help they need and lead to faster intervention.

"We know that timely screening, diagnosis and treatment predict better prognosis for patients with eating disorders," Dr. Sydney Hartman-Munick, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, told CNN. As a result, checking patients' electrolyte levels may be a helpful early diagnostic tool for eating disorders, like bulimia and anorexia nervosa, notes the study.

If you need help with an eating disorder or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).