A Physiologic Way to Detect Eating Disorders

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
July/August 2008 Volume 19, Number 4
©2008 Gürze Books

The old homily “As plain as the hair on your head” may have some scientific merit as well. Analyzing stable isotopes in human hair samples may help detect unsuspected underlying eating disorders, according to a report at the annual meeting of the Eating Disorders Research Society last fall. As Dr. Diane Spangler and colleagues from Brigham Young University, Provo, UT reported, many methods for diagnosing suspected eating disorders rely on the self-reporting capacity of the patient as well as data that may be subjective. Having an objective physiological way to classify eating disorders would be an obvious boon. Dr. Spangler’s group used the stable isotope ratios found in hair to detect eating disorders in 20 individuals diagnosed with anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN) and 23 healthy volunteers. The Brigham Young team developed an algorithm after measuring the stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen, and then tested this on 5 hairs from each patient and volunteer. The algorithm had both a sensitivity and specificity of 80% in identifying those with eating disorders. Further refinements may make it possible to distinguish between AN and BN as well. Stable isotope analysis of hair may be useful for determining the dietary history of individuals with eating disorders, and also for measuring their response to treatment.

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