Many college students are uncertain about how to eat right while at school. For some, food and eating become a constant, daily struggle. For these students, every minute represents a painstaking decision to eat, or not to eat. People with eating disorders feel controlled by food and by fears of becoming fat and losing control of their lives. Contrary to stereotype, people with eating disorders are not weird or strange. In fact, recent estimates suggest that one in five college women struggles with an eating disorder. She could be your roommate, your sister, your girlfriend, or even you. More and more, men find that they too are struggling with eating disorders. There are several types of eating disorders that students find themselves struggling with.
Bulimia nervosa is a cycle of uncontrolled eating, called binging, followed by purging through vomiting or the use of laxatives. Bulimics may also exercise to excess in an attempt to purge calories. People with bulimia are often of a normal weight, or may be slightly overweight. It usually begins as an attempt to control one's weight, but people find that they soon become out of control of the binge-purge cycle. Bulimia can range from infrequent bingeing and purging episodes to daily episodes that can absorb all of a person's time, emotions, and energy. Physical effects of bulimia can be quite serious, including damage to tooth enamel and the stomach and esophagus, kidney problems, and seizures. Electrolyte imbalances can result in sudden cardiac failure and even death.
Anorexia nervosa is an attempt to control one's weight and body by restricting the amount of food that he or she eats. It usually is caused by a tremendous fear of becoming fat, and tends to begin during high school or college years with a normal attempt to diet. As the anorexic becomes thinner and thinner, she loses her perspective, and her body image becomes distorted. She continues to see herself as fat, even if she is literally starving. Anorexics may lose their menstrual periods, find themselves constantly cold, suffer from dry skin and hair, low blood pressure, and heart difficulties, but continue to deny that they are too thin. Concentration also becomes diminished, and their ability to learn becomes impaired.
Compulsive overeating is an eating disorder in which people binge on large numbers of calories at one time, but do not purge. These individuals are often somewhat overweight and may be obese. Compulsive overeaters feel out of control of their eating habits, and suffer from low self-esteem and body image. They may eat when they feel stressed, or may binge after attempting to eat normally for a period of time. Because of the secretive nature of their eating, compulsive overeaters often feel isolated, but they fear being ostracized if others were to find out.
Although the causes of eating disorders are not entirely known, several contributors are thought to increase the likelihood that they will develop. Not much is known about possible biological factors, though some evidence suggests that eating disorders may arise as a secondary expression of genetically inherited depression and other mood disorders. Psychological factors seem to include low self-esteem, difficulties in family or origin including families with high achievement expectations for their children, and a tendency toward perfectionism. People with anorexia are often described as model children who are highly intelligent and perfectionistic. It has been suggested that controlling food intake is one means for an anorexic to gain control when he or she has felt out of control for much of their lives. Social contributors to eating disorders include the cultural emphasis on thinness. It is a cultural value to be thin at any expense, and this message is clear in all forms of the media, including popular movies, books, and magazines. Increasingly, adolescents turn to impossibly restrictive diets in an attempt to comply with these impossible standards of thinness.
An eating disorder is disruptive for the person who suffers from it, and for her family and friends. Signs that may indicate an eating disorder include preoccupation with food and thinness, excessive exercise, refusal to eat or refusal to eat in the presence of others, noticeable and extreme loss of weight, persistent depressed mood, and/or unusual eating habits. You may also notice a strong striving for perfection, withdrawal from friends, and/or persistent low self- esteem and negative body image.
If you think a friend has an eating disorder, be frank, but supportive. Express your concern to your friend, and let them know that you are available to talk. Don't nag them about food or their eating, as this will only make them feel more self-conscious. Don't comment about their physical appearance, even if you think you are paying them a compliment. Seek confidential consultation from the Counseling Center to help you learn how to talk to your friend about this problem, and to help him or her seek help.
Help is available. Counseling for eating disorders may include individual and/or group interventions, and can be quite effective. The aim of counseling is to help the person with an eating disorder unlearn destructive eating or purging patterns, as well as to learn more effective patterns. In addition, counseling aims to help the person feel more in control of their lives, and to find new ways to cope with difficulties and stress in their lives.
These links provide information about understanding the causes of your loved one's eating problems and what your role could be in helping them improve their health.
If you would like to discuss eating disorders, body image, or any other issues, please call or stop by the Counseling Center for an appointment.