Eating disorders affect up to 3% of the global population and can be life-threatening illnesses that do not discriminate whatever one’s age, gender, race, or socioeconomic background. If left untreated, they can have devastating effects on a person’s physical, mental, and social health. Early identification, prevention, and treatment are fundamental to a successful outcome.
Nurses Play a Key Role in Caring for People with Eating Disorders
Nurses are often the first point of entry for people with eating disorders seeking care. They play a critical role in establishing the foundation for lasting recovery from an eating disorder, especially for those who may not recognize they have a problem.
Nurses can assist patients in identifying problematic eating patterns, provide supportive emotional care throughout all stages of recovery, and monitor nutritional status, electrolyte imbalance, body mass, physical activity levels, and various unhealthy weight control behaviors, such as laxative or diuretic use.
Nurses can also assist in several other ways, including:
- Listening to patients’ struggles
- Providing open, honest communication
- Attending in a non-judgmental fashion
- Recommending more specialized services
- Building a safe, trustworthy environment
- Allowing patients to gather more insight into the nature of their problem
Key Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders to Look Out For
One of the important roles a nurse can play in eating disorder recovery is by helping the patient to recognize some unhealthy patterns of eating.
It is important to distinguish eating disorder behaviors from eating disorder attitudes. Note that some of these are easier to spot, while others may only be recognized through detailed discussion with a patient.
Behavioral Signs & Symptoms
- Eating large volumes of food very quickly
- Regularly skipping meals
- Eating in secret
- Going to the bathroom after meals
- Taking different diet pills
- Excessive exercise regimes
- Eating a limited variety of food types
- Staring in front of the mirror for long periods
- Checking body weight several times per day
Attitudinal Signs and Symptoms
- Obsessions with eating, weight, dieting, or calories
- Extreme fear of gaining weight
- Dissatisfaction with body shape and size
- Anxiety around meal times
- Concern with trying different foods
- Believing that achieving a certain size will bring forth happiness
Other Red Flags
It’s easy to miss the signs and symptoms of eating disorders. After all, people with eating disorders go to great lengths to hide their eating habits. If you are concerned that your patient might be struggling with an eating disorder, it might be worth paying attention to these red flags which might highlight a need for further treatment.
- Wearing baggy clothes to conceal their body
- Refusal to eat certain foods or food groups
- Ritualistic eating habits, like only using specific utensils
- Excuses to avoid meal times
- Frequent comments about feeling fat
- Drastic changes in body weight in short periods of time
- Irregular heart rhythms
- Loss or absence of menstruation
- Dizziness or fainting
- Brittle hair
- Regular feelings of being cold
What can Nurses do to Help?
There are many actionable steps nurses can take to facilitate the recovery process.
A useful starting point is to offer a collaborative plan of care. Here, the nurse can promote autonomy and accountability by providing guidance to allow the patient to play an active role in their own eating disorder management. Nurses can offer reinforcement during meal time, can motivate the patient to recovery, and can help them manage all aspects of living.
Furthermore, nurses can provide a list of available support and resources to those struggling. They can offer a safe environment for patients to explore their challenges, while at the same time displaying a level of empathy the client would feel comfortable with. Nurses may also assist by providing referral options to loves ones of patients, and other helpful resources for the patient to manage symptoms in a way suited to their needs.
Dr Jake Linardon (PhD) is the founder of Break Binge Eating and works as a Research Fellow at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. Jake’s work involves trying to better understand and treat eating disorders, particularly through the use of innovative technologies. Jake has published over 40 peer-reviewed journal articles, across the world’s leading psychiatry and clinical psychology scientiﬁc journals, and serves on the editorial board for the International Journal of Eating Disorders and Body Image. Jake is passionate about increasing access to evidence-based care among people with eating and body image issues.