Asking the right questions may allow doctors to tell whether a young woman is heading for an eating disorder, a new study suggests.
British researchers found that by giving young female dieters a questionnaire about their eating habits, they were able to accurately predict which ones would develop an eating disorder more than 70 percent of the time.
This suggests that similar questionnaires could be used during routine doctor visits to spot eating disorders before they fully develop, according to the study authors.
"It is feasible to identify them in advance with reasonable efficiency with a brief questionnaire," Dr. Christopher G. Fairburn and his colleagues at Oxford University report in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, often begin with what seems like "normal dieting," but a small number of young dieters develop a full-blown eating disorder, according to the researchers. Finding a way to spot those high-risk few may help prevent some cases, Fairburn and his colleagues note.
To see whether a brief questionnaire might be effective, the researchers followed 2,992 females between the ages of 16 and 23 who were dieting at the start of the study but had no history of eating disorders.
At the outset, the women completed a questionnaire about their eating habits and attitudes toward food. The researchers then followed them for two years to see if they developed an eating disorder.
During the study period, 104 of the dieters were diagnosed with an eating disorder, and the researchers found that certain features of the original questionnaire separated those who developed an eating disorder from those who did not.
In general, women who progressed to an eating disorder were much more likely to say they often ate "in secret" or frequently wanted to feel they had an "empty stomach." They also showed a greater preoccupation with food or their body shape, and more often feared they would "lose control" of their eating.
When the researchers focused on the women's responses to these questionnaire items two years earlier, they found that they could accurately identify 70 percent of future eating disorder cases.
The findings, according to Fairburn's team, suggest that a similar brief questionnaire could be used as part of young women's routine healthcare. Doctors could then target high-risk patients for prevention, or at least follow-up with them at subsequent visits.