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Many Girls With Diabetes, PKU Have Symptoms of Eating Disorders


WebMD Health News

April 27, 2000 -- Girls and young women with metabolic disorders such as diabetes or phenylketonuria (PKU) must often follow restrictive diets that will last throughout their lives. A new study shows that some of these girls and women develop serious eating problems and behave in ways that may worsen their health.

The findings suggest that living with diseases that have strict dietary requirements may affect patients' eating behaviors and attitudes toward food, increasing their risks of developing eating disturbances, researcher Joan C. Chrisler, PhD, writes in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

"There's almost an epidemic of eating disorders in this country among young girls," Chrisler, of Connecticut College in New London, Conn., tells WebMD. "There's a lot of bulimia, binge eating and chronic dieting. ... We were concerned about girls with chronic illnesses who are on diets that they must maintain for their metabolic health and safety. We wondered how they would react to these diets and whether they are at risk for eating disorders."

Together with colleague Jeanne E. Antisdel, MA, Chrisler studied girls and young women attending specialized summer camps for people with medical problems, along with staffers at the camps.

The first group they looked at was girls with type 1 diabetes mellitus, a condition characterized by the body's failure to make insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. Diabetics must strictly monitor their consumption of sweets and starches to avoid gaining too much weight. Failure to follow a careful diet or take insulin properly can lead to serious complications, such as kidney failure, problems with blood circulation, and eye problems. The diabetes group included 54 girls and young women 11 to 21 years old.

The second group, consisting of 30 girls and women 11 to 36 years old, had PKU, a hereditary disease caused by the lack of the enzyme needed to break down the amino acid phenylalanine in the body. Phenylalanine is found in many foods containing protein, such as red meat, as well as in some fruits and vegetables and the artificial sweetener aspartame. Failure to follow the proper diet may lead to brain damage. These patients are often underweight and are urged to consume nutritional supplements to gain weight. They also may not grow to an average height because of their restricted intake of protein.

All the participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their eating attitudes and behaviors, psychological adjustment, and knowledge about their disease.

About a third of the diabetic girls and a quarter of the PKU girls had eating problems, the survey found. The symptoms were not as severe as those in patients who might be seen at an eating disorders clinic, but were worse than those seen in normal populations, the researchers say.

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