Detection, evaluation, and treatment of eating disorders the role of the primary care physician

J Gen Intern Med. 2000 Aug;15(8):577-90. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2000.02439.x.


Objective: To describe how primary care clinicians can detect an eating disorder and identify and manage the associated medical complications.

Design: A review of literature from 1994 to 1999 identified by a MEDLINE search on epidemiology, diagnosis, and therapy of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Measurements and main results: Detection requires awareness of risk factors for, and symptoms and signs of, anorexia nervosa (e.g., participation in activities valuing thinness, family history of an eating disorder, amenorrhea, lanugo hair) and bulimia nervosa (e.g., unsuccessful attempts at weight loss, history of childhood sexual abuse, family history of depression, erosion of tooth enamel from vomiting, partoid gland swelling, and gastroesophageal reflux). Providers must also remain alert for disordered eating in female athletes (the female athlete triad) and disordered eating in diabetics. Treatment requires a multidisciplinary team including a primary care practitioner, nutritionist, and mental health professional. The role of the primary care practitioner is to help determine the need for hospitalization and to manage medical complications (e.g., arrhythmias, refeeding syndrome, osteoporosis, and electrolyte abnormalities such as hypokalemia).

Conclusion: Primary care providers have an important role in detecting and managing eating disorders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anorexia Nervosa / diagnosis*
  • Anorexia Nervosa / etiology
  • Anorexia Nervosa / therapy*
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Bulimia / diagnosis*
  • Bulimia / etiology
  • Bulimia / therapy*
  • Diabetes Complications
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / diagnosis
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / therapy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Patient Care Team
  • Primary Health Care
  • Prognosis
  • Psychotherapy
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Sports


  • Antidepressive Agents