Dieting and the body image concerns that lead to it are nothing new in our society. But what happens when innocent dieting becomes something worse? The effects of eating disorders, when left untreated, can result in damage to almost all organ systems, as well as leading to osteoporosis, delayed growth, hearth failure, and even death. The scary part is that the numbers associated with eating disorders are probably higher than you would expect, especially among college students:
• Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, as well as a suicide rate that is 50 times higher than that of the general population
• 91% of college women have attempted weight control through dieting
• 35% of those “normal” dieters will progress into pathological dieting
• 20-25% of those who progress to pathological dieting will develop partial or full-syndrome eating disorders
Why College Students?
We see people dieting at all ages but college students are especially susceptible to having innocent dieting morph into a problem. This is easy to understand once you look at the factors that can contribute to eating disorders among college students. For many, college presents:
• A time when appearance and image become more important because of new ventures into dating and the chance to make new friends
• The first time they’ve had the freedom and responsibility to make their own food choices
• Feelings of isolation and homesickness
• Intense peer pressure
• Pressure to achieve academically
• A new crowd of people who may not recognize mood or behavior changes
• Separation from regular family and friends, which can make denying or hiding their illness easier
For a freshman student, the start of college may cause some phase of life adjustment anxiety as the world becomes much larger and more complex and stressful in a very short amount of time. Focusing their energy on their eating and weight can often be an avenue for seeking a sense of control that they can’t find in other aspects of their lives. In fact, while it might seem like eating disorders are about food, weight, exercise, and eating, they are more often related to anxiety, depression, perfectionism, low self-esteem, trauma, or other psychological and emotional issues.
Common Types of Eating Disorders
There are 3 different types of eating disorders:
• Anorexia nervosa occurs when someone goes to extreme measures to avoid eating. People suffering from this disorder are often abnormally thin but still talk about feeling fat on a regular basis
• Bulimia occurs when someone practices a “binge and purge” cycle. A person suffering from bulimia will eat a lot of food at one time (bingeing) but then vomit it up in an attempt to prevent weight gain (purging). Excessive use of laxatives or dieting pills could also be an indicator of bulimia
• Binge-eating involves uncontrollable, excessive eating that is often followed by feelings of guilt or shame
Are you still doubt about eating disorders being truly prevalent among the college crowd? Outside of the typical eating disorders some particularly scary trends have been known to pop up on college campuses over the years, including:
• “Drunkorexia,” which involves starving oneself throughout the day in order to drink and party all night without gaining weight from the alcohol
• “Binge and purge parties,” which are focused around talking about and eating massive amounts of food followed by a bathroom rotation to vomit everything back up
• “Nap dieting,” where you “sleep off” hunger by taking a nap to avoid eating every time you feel hungry
How to Help
One of the best ways to prevent or assist with eating disorders is to become knowledgeable about the subject and help educate others. If you know someone who might be suffering from an eating disorder, pay attention and watch for the following:
• Mood changes
• Weight fluctuations
• Preoccupation with food and weight
• Changes in eating behavior
• Changes in exercise behavior
Discussing these changes with someone who might have a problem can be difficult and should be handled with care. Watch the language you use and try to avoid words like “heavy,” “fat,” or “thin.” Any discussion could easily lead to anger or denial so be prepared to tread lightly. It’s important to remember that eating disorders can often develop from a feeling of being out of control so the more you can let your loved one lead the process to recovery, the better off they’ll be.
When in doubt, it’s always best to seek professional help. If you are suffering from the symptoms of an eating disorder or think a loved one may be, contact Dr. Andrew Rosen and The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida at 561-496-1094 or email Dr. Rosen and The Center today.