Mental Wellness Month: A Spotlight on Eating Disorders

Arx0nt/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
Arx0nt/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

January is Mental Wellness Month. As a Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian, I appreciate the opportunity to write about this important topic. As RDNs, we may have a tendency to think more about the physical rather than mental health of our patients. But the reality is that “about one in four adults … suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.”

Regardless of your practice, you certainly treat people with mental disorders. I would like to take this opportunity to create awareness about eating disorders, the mental disorder that relates to our field of food and nutrition most directly. As an eating disorder specialist, a common phrase I hear from other RDNs is, “Oh, I don’t treat clients with eating disorders.” But the reality is, you do even if you don’t know it! In this article I will share with you some data to increase your awareness of these diseases as well as resources to help you feel more confident in assessing for and providing appropriate referrals for clients suspected of suffering from an eating disorder. Often, RDNs are the first line of defense in identifying an eating disorder.

Here are some facts and figures to consider:

Eating disorders affect approximately 6 percent of the population. This figure does not include those who suffer with disordered eating but do not meet the DSM-V criteria for a diagnosable eating disorder.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness.

Eating disorders continue to grow exponentially each decade despite efforts at research, prevention and improved treatment.

Despite the prevalence of eating disorders, they continue to receive inadequate research funding. Research dollars spent on Alzheimer’s disease averaged $88 per affected individual in 2011. For eating disorders, the average amount of research dollars per affected individual was just $0.93. Currently there are six times more people with an eating disorder than with Alzheimer’s disease.

Eating disorders are still one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented illnesses.

Anorexia nervosa is the most lethal mental illness.

Often, our patients will present with other concerns such as gastrointestinal complaints or a goal to lose weight. If you suspect an eating disorder, here are some resources for you to consider:
• Utilize the SCOFF Questionnaire, which has been validated by research.
• Incorporate some of the assessment questions from this article I wrote on vegetarianism and eating disorders
• Provide your patient with a Free Online Screening Tool.

You may also ask your clients the following questions:
• Are you familiar with the signs and symptoms of disorder eating?
• Have you ever considered seeing a counselor regarding the stress and anxiety your eating is causing you?
• Do you ever experience significant guilt and shame about your eating habits?

Finally, identify and make professional contacts with the dietitians in your area who specialize in eating disorders. They are your best allies and strongest support in helping you navigate this often difficult area of practice. And remember, while it may feel challenging for you to initiate the conversation with a client, you could be saving his or her life.

National Eating Disorders Association, Get the Facts on Eating Disorders
National Institute of Mental Health, The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America

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Marci Evans
Marci Evans, MS, CEDRD-S, counsels clients and manages her group practice in Cambridge, MA. She also brings her passion and skill in the eating disorders field to students, interns and clinicians with online trainings and clinical supervision. Connect with her at and all social media outlets @marciRD.