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The Surprising Link Between Celiac Disease and Eating Disorders

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Gluten-free diets and eating disorders might have more in common than you think. Adult women ages 20 and older who were diagnosed with celiac disease (CD) were twice as likely to develop anorexia nervosa afterward, according to a recent study in Pediatrics. For young women who were diagnosed before age 19, that risk jumped to 4.5 times as likely. Yup, seriously.

Surprised? Researchers say their study suggests that the excessive focus on diet (read: checking labels constantly) that comes along with CD could lead to anorexia in some people. When you think about it, it makes sense that the necessity of being super in-touch with what you *can* and *can't* eat could lead to getting carried away with restricting your food. (BTW, this is the weird thing that could make you more likely to have celiac disease.) 

"We see many patients that have had health issues such as diabetes and allergies, in which dietary restrictions or recommendations began a pattern of disordered eating," says Bonnie Brennan, M.A., L.P.C., C.E.D.S., Senior Clinical Director of Adult Residential and Partial Hospital Services at Eating Recovery Center. "Oftentimes an innocent attempt to eat healthy or start a diet, or in this case, follow the recommendations of a professional, can spiral into restricting or limiting food groups because the person stumbles into reinforcers such as: 'I get a lot more attention from my family and friends for having this issue,' or 'the dietary limitations make it easier for me to turn down social invitations or pass on activities that I'm anxious about,'" she explains.

As for how to keep things under control when you truly NEED to restrict a given ingredient, meeting with a nutritionist is essential, according to Jennifer Carter, Ph.D., a psychologist at Wexner Medical Center's Jameson Crane Sports Medicine Institute at The Ohio State University. "The best strategy is to meet with a dietitian to create an individualized plan," she says. After all, their job is to help you understand what your body needs, and for people with dietary restrictions, getting all the necessary nutrients can be challenging.

"It's also important to develop effective coping skills for stress," says Carter. If you find yourself looking to food (either eating less than you need or way more than you need) during times of stress, it's a good idea to check in with a mental health care professional. Lastly, Carter encourages those who have serious dietary restrictions to know more about their eating disorder risk. "If you have a family history of eating disorders, anxiety, depression, trauma, or addiction, you may be more at risk," she says.

Some other signs that you're at risk: Obsessive thinking about food, your weight, and what your body looks like. These markers could potentially give you the heads-up that you're restricting your food too much, according to Carter. "Our bodies are amazing at survival, and when we don't get enough fuel, we think about food nonstop." Yes, if you like food, you probably think about it frequently, but Carter notes that some people with eating disorders say they think about what they eat for over 75 percent of the day. That's A LOT of thinking about food. Some of the other things you should watch out for? Low energy, irritability, anxiety around food, binge-eating, compulsive exercise, extreme self-criticism, low body weight, and withdrawal from others are all signs that you should reach out to a health professional.

The good news? Recovery is more common than previously thought.

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