Eating disorders are often difficult to diagnose as individuals may not recognize their problem, or may attempt to disguise it. New research suggests health providers may soon have a novel method to determine whether a person has an eating disorder – perform a hair analysis.

Scientists believe use of mass spectrometry, a chemistry technique that analyzes the carbon and nitrogen bound into hair fibers, can determine whether a person has an eating disorder.

Hair grows by adding new proteins to the base of the strand, and pushing the strand up out of the hair follicle. The make-up of these proteins will be influenced by the nutritional state of the person at that moment.

This nutritional state is in turn subtly affected by eating patterns associated with eating disorders. Because hair grows all the time, each strand consequently becomes a chemical diary, recording an individual’s day-by-day nutrition.

Researchers from Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, studied if the patterns of carbon and nitrogen molecules in strands of hair varied between people with eating disorders and others with normal eating behaviors.

Careful statistical analysis of the data enabled them to give an 80% accurate prediction about whether a person had anorexia or bulimia – the two most common eating disorders. The test was so powerful that it required only five stands of hair.

“The test needs further validation before it will be ready for routine clinical use, but we believe that the current work shows that the method is already quite robust,” says lead author Kent Hatch of Brigham Young University’s Department of Integrative Biology.

“While some objective measures, such as low weight for age and height, aid in diagnosis of eating disorders, up until now doctors and researchers have had to rely heavily on self-reported information and qualitative interviews with patients. Data collected this way is often highly subjective and demands honesty from the patient. This test has the potential of providing an objective, biological measure for diagnosing eating disorders,” says Kent.

Source: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.