Disordered eating in type 1 diabetes: help is on its way. | Diabetes Qualified

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Disordered eating in type 1 diabetes: help is on its way.

Written by Helen d’Emden AdvAPD CDE 

Disordered eating is common in young people with type 1 diabetes and can persist into adulthood. It is estimated to occur in 30-40% of females and 10% of males. Clinical eating disorders are also twice as common in girls with type 1 diabetes than their peers, with binge eating disorders, other specified feeding and eating disorders and bulimia nervosa the most common types. Anorexia Nervosa is also seen but prevalence rates are similar to the general population.  

The diabetes specific reasons for the higher rates of disordered eating and eating disorders include: 

  • Weight loss prior to the diagnosis due to the lack of insulin followed by weight restoration when insulin is commenced which can contribute to body dissatisfaction.  
  • Diabetes management has an intense focus on carbohydrate counting and blood glucose levels.  
  • There is a focus on weight as it is routinely monitored at clinic visits to assess insulin requirements and growth  
  • Episodes of recurrent hypoglycaemia can trigger binge-eating episodes and weight gain. 
  • The ability to restrict or omit insulin, a unique purging behaviour to achieve weight loss for those with type 1 diabetes, without the need for significant food restriction 
  • The increased task and associated burden associated with managing such a complex chronic health condition along with the effect on self-esteem.  
  • The obvious need for increased autonomy with age related to diabetes self-management, and how the parents and family manage this.  


Disordered eating and eating disorders cause serious health consequences for those with type 1 diabetesThere are increased rates nephropathy, neuropathy and retinopathy. There is an increased risk of diabetes ketoacidosis especially when insulin omission is present. Mental health impairment is seen with higher rates of anxiety, depression and diabetes distress. Quality of life can be impacted with fatigue and sleep disturbances, excessive hunger and thirst, dehydration, muscle atrophy, menstrual and hormone disturbances and digestive problemsOther potential concerns are electrolyte abnormalities, postural hypotension, bradycardia and tachycardia. Those who have comorbid anorexia nervosa and T1DM have 5-10 times higher mortality rates than those who have anorexia nervosa or type 1 diabetes alone.  

It is very important that health providers looking after young people with T1DM are aware of the signs and symptoms of disordered eating. There are many potential indicators which include behavioural and psychosocial signs, diabetes management signs and medical indicators. Disordered eating needs to be identified and addressed early so thoughts and behaviours do not become entrenched.  

Until now clinical pathways and practical guidelines to assess and address disordered eating and eating disorders have been lacking, and this has posed considerable challenges even to experienced diabetes teamsThe Queensland Diabetes State-wide Clinical Network sought to develop a consensus clinical guideline to inform health professionals who work with those with type 1 diabetes. A working group of diabetes and eating disorder professionals from Qld, NSW and Victoria was established with clinical and research experience. Consumer and peer reviews were sought. The expert consensus guidelines to address disordered eating in those aged 16 years will soon be available on the Queensland Health website. They address the definition of disordered eating and eating disorders, along with strategies for prevention, the aetiology, prevalence and consequences. They also include information on a stepped care model of assessment, and interventions involving all members of the multidisciplinary teamImportantlythey will inform when to escalate care and the indicators for hospital admission.  

Listen to the podcast on Diabulimia here – Katie Allison, accredited practicing dietitian at Diabetes NSW & ACT and Dr Lisa Robins, clinical physiologist discuss diabulimia – the intentional misuse of insulin for people living with type 1 diabetes for weight control.

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