Metro Vancouver gets new tools for people with eating disorders

VANCOUVER -- A new eating disorder clinic is opening and a residential treatment centre is moving to Vancouver this summer, marking a dramatic increase in the services available here for people with anorexia and bulimia.

Dr. Laird Birmingham, a specialist in eating disorders who has been at the forefront of treatment in B.C. for decades, is launching a private clinic on Granville Street that he says will provide a type of individualized treatment that’s currently not available.

“In Vancouver, there are a ton of different groups, but the problem I have is that they aren’t tailored for the individual,” Birmingham said in a telephone interview.

“If you have someone with acute anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa they need specific help, not general group therapy. It’s like a cancer clinic. If you have cancer of the mouth versus cancer of the bowel, you get totally different treatment protocols.

“With eating disorders, it’s the same thing.”

But patients will have to pay out-of-pocket for that service. A half-hour consultation with Birmingham costs $250 although he says he will see few patients himself and will instead oversee the treatment with other health care professionals like family therapists and nutritionists, who charge lower hourly rates. He estimated that a 14- to 20-week course of treatment for someone with bulimia would cost $4,000.

He said families usually don’t complain about the cost of finding help as much as the scarcity of resources.

“You might say that’s a lot of money, but I think it’s what people need. I hope eventually that the province will pay for this and they’ll see that it’s the best therapy.”

The provincial government covers patients in hospital — there are special programs at both BC Children’s for patients up to age 18 and St. Paul’s for patients over 17 — and also group therapy sessions which are the most accessible.

It also funds a residential program for 17- to 24-year-olds called Woodstone Residence on Galiano Island, in collaboration with the not-for-profit Looking Glass Foundation. That program is moving to Vancouver to the former Ronald McDonald house on Angus Drive in Shaughnessy courtesy of a donor who purchased the house for its use, said foundation co-founder Deborah Grimm.

“It’s fabulous that we’re coming to Vancouver. We get to have a broader reach and access to the city’s medical sites. It allows us to grow in new ways,” said Grimm.

Woodstone Residence will continue to provide 10 beds covered by provincial health care for B.C. residents and 10 additional beds for out-of-province patients. Renovations are underway and the new Woodstone Residence is expected to open this summer.

Birmingham, who is the former medical director at Woodstone and a professor in psychiatry at the University of B. C., says he is using the proceeds from his clinic to fund research.

He now recruiting women between the ages of 17 and 30 who have anorexia nervosa, or have had it, for a study using a brain scan technology called low resolution electromagnetic tomography analysis. He’s also seeking a control group of 10 women in the same age range who do not have an eating disorder.

Just as abnormal patterns of brain signals can be seen in patients with psychiatric conditions like depression, Birmingham hopes his work will add to the growing body of knowledge about which parts of the brain are affected by anorexia. The scans have the additional benefit of showing patients that their brains are working in a different way than others.

“Quite often, people with eating disorders don’t believe they have a disease and the public doesn’t either. ... When I can see that their brain is malfunctioning, I often say to them it’s like having a computer virus in your computer and you’ve got to get the virus out of there. Then it’s a tangible concrete thing that they can fight. I think that’s a big plus.”

Also this week, Kwantlen Polytechnic University launched an online course designed by Birmingham and based on his book Medical Management of Eating Disorders. It’s aimed at health professionals — and is an accredited course for doctors, nurses and psychotherapists — although there is a separate stream suited for families and friends of those who have eating disorders. The self-guided course must be competed in six months and costs $1,996. To register, visit:

For more information about the research project call or 604-561-5503 or go to

The new clinic is called the Dr. Birmingham and Associates Vancouver Eating Disorder Clinic and its website is

Eating disorders: the facts

The Canadian Mental Health Association  divides eating disorders into three main categories: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa: People with anorexia restrict their food or exercise relentlessly to keep their weight in a range that they consider ideal even though it may be far lower than a healthy weight. It affects up to one per cent of women (women make up 90 per cent of all cases). Adolescent girls are most at risk.It can result in heart and kidney problems, low blood iron, bone loss, digestive problems, low heart rate, low blood pressure, and fertility problems in women. It is considered one of the most dangerous illness, particularly for young women, because up to 10 per cent  of patients die as a result of health complications or suicide.

Bulimia nervosa: This involves binge eating followed by purging, either through self-induced vomiting or laxatives. Up to three per cent of Canadians have experienced it during their lifetimes, mostly young women. Health risks include kidney problems, dehydration and digestive problems. Vomiting brings up stomach acids that damage the teeth, mouth and throat.

Binge-eaters: They may feel like they can’t control how much they eat, and are distressed or guilty after bingeing. Its sufferers tend to be older — and many are men — who keep it secret. It can develop after crash dieting and increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity.

• Anyone can develop an eating disorder, but people with lower self-esteem, poor body image, perfectionist tendencies or difficulties dealing with stress may be more likely to experience it.

• Treatment can include counselling, behavioural therapy, instruction in problem-solving, stress management and relaxation. Nutritional counselling can teach good eating habits and coping strategies. Medications can include anti-depressants for bulimia and zinc supplements to aid weight gain among anorexic patients.

• Rates have remained steady in recent decades following a rapid increase from the 1950s to 1980s. Statistics Canada says about 113,000 Canadians have an eating disorder of some kind, with the highest numbers in Ontario (58,000), Quebec (20,000) and B.C. (11,000). Figures from other provinces are too unreliable to publish, according to its website.

Source: Canadian Mental Health Association, Statistic Canada, National Eating Disorder Information Centre, Current Psychiatry Reports