As if anyone struggling with celiac disease doesn’t have enough to deal with, worrisome new research published in Pediatrics indicates that women with celiac disease may be twice as likely to develop anorexia nervosa (an eating disorder that affects 1 percent of U.S. women).
The researchers studied 17,959 Swedish women with celiac disease and compared them to a control group of 83,379 women who weren’t celiacs. Women over 20 with celiac disease were doubly likely to develop anorexia later in life than women without celiac, and women who were diagnosed with celiac before age 19 were almost five times likelier to have been diagnosed with anorexia than women without celiac.
Since celiac disease can be difficult to diagnose, and since the symptoms of the two diseases — weight loss, fatigue, bloating — can present similarly, the researchers suspect this might play a role in the association between the two conditions. In other words, some of the subjects could have been initially misdiagnosed with celiac disease, but in reality were struggling with anorexia and vice versa.
However, it’s also possible that there’s an emotional link there too. It’s unlikely that the strong correlation between the two diseases can be solely explained by misdiagnoses of symptoms. “The present study suggests that excessive focus on diet in patients with [celiac disease] may lead to development of [anorexia nervosa] in susceptible individuals,” wrote study authors Neville H. Golden and K.T. Park.
Celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder where your body rejects gluten, the protein found in wheat — affects 1 percent of Americans. That might not seem like a lot, but it nets out to about three million people (and some numbers indicate that about 95 percent of celiac cases go undiagnosed, so it’s probably even more than that). And the disease tends to be more prevalent in women.
That means we should all be aware of the crossover between these two conditions and the fact that celiac could predispose some to anorexia. Serious stuff, but good to know.