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3 Reasons Why You Should NEVER Self-Diagnose an Eating Disorder


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Eating disorders are mental health conditions that require specialized, professional treatment. The potential medical and mental health dangers associated with untreated eating disorders cannot be understated. Getting help to heal from an eating disorder requires choosing a program that offers individualized, specialized treatment specific to your treatment needs. This means your eating disorder and any underlying or co-occurring medical or mental health treatment needs must be accurately diagnosed. 

The available data on self-diagnosis is concerning. Data from a study by the Pew Research Center found that only around half of people that look online for information tell their doctors about what they discovered. Individuals often believe what they uncover from search engines, often acting without consulting an outside source.

There are many potential dangers of self-diagnosis. When you attempt to self-diagnose a mental health condition, it may lead to more harm than good. The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists nearly 300 unique mental health diagnoses. Of those, 8 are specific eating disorder diagnoses. It is not unrealistic to point out that symptoms of one condition will often overlap with or be easily confused for another. When you self-diagnose, you may miss something, causing you undue worry or not seek help when you should. 

Eating Disorders are Complex Mental Health Conditions

Mental health and eating disorders share several connections. The first and most apparent is that eating disorders are diagnosable mental health conditions. In the absence of or in connection with another co-occurring condition, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders provides clear diagnostic criteria for the above and other mental health conditions. These criteria provide a starting point for mental health providers as they work with you to develop an eating disorder treatment plan to help you get well. 

Eating disorders are mental health conditions that can also have a harmful effect on other areas of your mental health. They frequently co-occur with depression and anxiety disorders. They may also co-occur with substance use disorders, borderline personality disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. It is essential to get help for all of these mental health concerns as part of a single, comprehensive treatment program. 

Research indicates as many as 75% of people with an eating disorder also experience major depression, and data from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests as many as two-thirds of people with an eating disorder have anxiety at some point in their lives. Up to 42% developed an anxiety disorder during adolescence or teen years. In most cases, this was well before the onset of the symptoms linked to their eating disorder. 

Anxiety disorders were more common among people diagnosed with bulimia (80.6%). However, a high percentage (47.9%) of people with anorexia nervosa also met the diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorders. Similar outcomes applied to substance use disorders (36.8% of those with bulimia and 27% with anorexia). Mood and impulse control disorders also frequently co-occurred with bulimia (70.7% and 63.8%, respectively). 

In addition to the above statistics, data provided by the National Institute of Mental Health suggests a high rate of co-occurrence between eating disorders and what they refer to as “core mental disorders.” The data reports on the co-occurrence rates between bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder with other mental health conditions such as substance use disorders, mood disorders, impulse control disorders (OCD), and anxiety 


Although it may be possible to follow a template or examine your symptoms to self-diagnose an eating disorder, it is unlikely self-diagnosis will look deep enough to consider how underlying or co-occurring mental health conditions are related to eating disorder behaviors. Without a formal diagnosis, you may not get the help you need to understand how your mental health relates to your eating disorder symptoms. It is also possible that you may not receive the “right” level of care to begin the process of healing the mental health difficulties that contribute to eating disorder development. 

Eating Disorders are Frequently Dual Diagnosis Conditions 

Eating disorders frequently occur alongside substance use disorders. This is called a dual diagnosis condition and requires multifaceted, specialized treatment to help you simultaneously heal from the effects of both illnesses. Data from the National Eating Disorders Association suggests the link between eating disorders and alcohol or drug abuse is substantial. According to statistics released by the association, the lifetime rate of eating disorders among those with a substance abuse disorder is nearly 11 times that of those who do not. 

The substance abuse rate among specific eating disorders is also quite staggering. As many as 18% of those with anorexia nervosa also have a substance use problem. For those with bulimia, that number is as high as 50%. Rates of alcohol use or drug use among those with binge eating disorders false somewhere in the middle at about 25%.

Like drugs and alcohol, people turn to food to help regulate mood or reduce the symptoms of another mental or physical illness. Many people with an eating disorder and a co-occurring substance use disorder also have backgrounds of abuse, history, or neglect. They often turn to coping tools like drugs, alcohol, or food to help reduce the intensity and severity of the emotional stress associated with their experiences. A wide range of stressors can lead to co-occurring addiction and eating disorders, including anxiety, depression, relationship problems, challenges at home, challenges at work, or domestic or physical violence.

Both eating disorders and (specifically) alcohol addiction share one other highly dangerous side effect: malnutrition. When someone drinks to excess, it is not uncommon for them to neglect their diet, leading to significant deficits in nutrition. Heavy drinking can also damage organs responsible for processing food and releasing nutrients into the body. Eating disorders share many of the same harmful effects. Combining the physical harms of an eating disorder and alcohol addiction can quickly become life-threatening. Without treatment, dangerous medical situations such as liver and kidney damage, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and sudden death can occur. 

Self-diagnosing an eating disorder may not consider the impact co-occurring substance use has on your medical and emotional health. It may also mean you do not get the comprehensive and crucial dual diagnosis treatment that is vital to achieving recovery. 

Without Treatment, Eating Disorders Can Be Deadly

Eating disorders occur with a greater frequency than people may realize. Data from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders shows as many as 30 million Americans of all ages have an eating disorder. Eating disorders are unbiased. No group, gender identity, or other demographic is “safe” from the dangers of eating disorder behaviors. 

In addition to the frequency of occurrence,  it is crucial to remember that eating disorders are deadly. Data from the same report by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders shows at least one person dies every hour due to the effects of an eating disorder. Eating disorders of all kinds are among the most deadly mental health conditions. This equals over 10 thousand lives lost annually from untreated eating disorders. But diagnosing and treating eating disorders is not necessarily cut and dry. 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists several eating disorder diagnoses. The DSM is the text used by mental health professionals at a treatment program like ours at The Meadowglade to assess and accurately diagnose an eating disorder. The criteria in the DSM help mental health professionals distinguish eating disorder symptoms allowing for an accurate diagnosis and development of a treatment plan for your specific treatment needs. 

Eating disorder symptoms often overlap, but some conditions share similar symptoms but different root causes. Correctly diagnosing your eating disorder symptoms is essential to taking the proper steps towards healing and learning about how life stressors and other physical and mental health factors contribute to your eating disorder. 

Without understanding your symptoms and how they connect to a specific diagnosis, you may not get the help you need to recover safely. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, twenty percent of people suffering from anorexia will die due to the illness. Up to 20% of all eating disorder cases (not just anorexia) lead to premature death. Self-diagnosis of an eating disorder may not adequately address your symptoms, leading to misdiagnosis and failure to diagnose the actual severity of your illness, leading to potentially dangerous and fatal outcomes. 

Get Help for Eating Disorders at The Meadowglade

Not only is self-diagnosing undesirable, but it can also be dangerous. If you make inaccurate assumptions about the condition you’re suffering from, you may choose the wrong treatment. When individuals self-diagnosis psychological syndromes, they can miss a medical disease that contributes to their symptoms. With self-diagnosis, you also risk being completely wrong about an illness, especially if the symptoms you are experiencing are common to multiple conditions. 

Eating disorders cannot be self-diagnosed. The only way to accurately determine if you or a loved one has developed an eating disorder is to complete a thorough assessment with a qualified healthcare provider at The Meadowglade. If you are concerned about your symptoms, do not wait to call. Acknowledging and recognizing an unhealthy relationship with food is the first step towards a safe recovery. 

Only a qualified doctor or therapist cm diagnose an eating disorder. They are also the most qualified to develop and recommend a treatment plan to help you begin your recovery journey. If you are ready to take the first steps towards healing from an eating disorder, contact a member of our admissions team today to ask about our programs.

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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