Eating disorders can be difficult to diagnose, often because patients don't realize they have a problem or they try to hide it.
But researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) say they've developed a new test that analyzes the carbon and nitrogen found in hair that can determine whether someone is struggling with conditions such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
"Your body records your eating habits in the hair. So, we can use that to tell the nutritional health of an individual," said lead researcher Kent Hatch, an assistant professor of integrative biology at BYU.
As hair grows, new proteins are added to the base of each strand, pushing the strand up and out of the hair follicle. These proteins are influenced by what you eat. And the nutritional state of each individual is affected by his or her eating patterns. So, each strand of hair is a chemical "diary" that is a record of day-by-day nutrition, the researchers said, reports Forbes.
According to Houston Chronicle, larger studies are planned to possibly develop a test that can be used in clinics. The research was published Monday in a journal, Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.
"This would give a clinician an objective measure to use to diagnose an eating disorder, and we hope it will eventually allow a sound diagnosis at an earlier stage," said Hatch, a professor in BYU's department of integrative biology.
A test is needed in the diagnosis of eating disorders because those who suffer from them tend to be secretive about their problem or may not even know they are ill.
"Their self-evaluation is very impaired," said Jennifer Tolman, clinical director at Avalon Hills, a treatment facility in Cache County, Utah.
"We had a girl who was 5-10 and 98 pounds and she wasn't even sure she had an eating disorder, although she could recognize it in others," Tolman said.
Doctors and therapists often must rely upon patients to report what and how much they eat, information that can be unreliable.