Eating Disorders in Primary Care: Diagnosis and Management

Am Fam Physician. 2021 Jan 1;103(1):22-32.


Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening conditions characterized by disordered eating and weight-control behaviors that impair physical health and psychosocial functioning. Early intervention may decrease the risk of long-term pathology and disability. Clinicians should interpret disordered eating and body image concerns and carefully monitor patients' height, weight, and body mass index trends for subtle changes. After diagnosis, visits should include the sensitive review of psychosocial and clinical factors, physical examination, orthostatic vital signs, and testing (e.g., a metabolic panel with magnesium and phosphate levels, electrocardiography) when indicated. Additional care team members (i.e., dietitian, therapist, and caregivers) should provide a unified, evidence-based therapeutic approach. The escalation of care should be based on health status (e.g., acute food refusal, uncontrollable binge eating or purging, co-occurring conditions, suicidality, test abnormalities), weight patterns, outpatient options, and social support. A healthy weight range is determined by the degree of malnutrition and pre-illness trajectories. Weight gain of 2.2 to 4.4 lb per week stabilizes cardiovascular health. Treatment options may include cognitive behavior interventions that address body image and dietary and physical activity behaviors; family-based therapy, which is a first-line treatment for youths; and pharmacotherapy, which may treat co-occurring conditions, but should not be pursued alone. Evidence supports select antidepressants or topiramate for bulimia nervosa and lisdexamfetamine for binge-eating disorder. Remission is suggested by healthy biopsychosocial functioning, cognitive flexibility with eating, resolution of disordered behaviors and decision-making, and if applicable, restoration of weight and menses. Prevention should emphasize a positive focus on body image instead of a focus on weight or dieting.

MeSH terms

  • Anorexia Nervosa / diagnosis
  • Anorexia Nervosa / therapy
  • Binge-Eating Disorder / diagnosis
  • Binge-Eating Disorder / therapy
  • Body Image*
  • Bulimia Nervosa / diagnosis
  • Bulimia Nervosa / therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical History Taking*
  • Primary Health Care / organization & administration*
  • Referral and Consultation / organization & administration
  • Risk Factors