Collegebound.net recently published an article by a former student who overcame her own battle with anorexia. Shannon’s story offers valuable insight for anyone making the transition into college or knows someone who has possibly developed an eating disorder since moving away to college.
Here is an excerpt:
Something About the Atmosphere…
“Oh, there are about 100 reasons: Leaving family, being on your own, finding yourself, academic stress,” lists Alisa Shanks, Ph.D., an eating disorders specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder (UCB). “Unfortunately, many students cope by obsessing over food because it helps them feel in control.”
Of course, control is only part of the equation; Shanks also blames what she calls “selective perception.” This means students who have concerns about their appearance or self-worth will only register thinner, more attractive, better-dressed people as they walk across campus, which further threatens their value.
“I think freshmen are most vulnerable to this mindset because they go from being big fish in small ponds to not even being in the pond, so they figure their looks must be the problem,” Shanks says. Diane Mickley, M.D., president of the Greenwich, CT-based Wilkins Center for Eating Disorders, agrees that college students who are struggling to adjust to their new lives are at increased risk for eating disorders — particularly when they are perfectionists about grades. “The temperament that makes these kids academically successful tends to be the same one that precipitates eating disorders,” Mickley explains. “The higher achieving the kid, the higher the risk.”
Other reasons why college students are a particularly vulnerable group? The pressure to look good for potential mates; participation in highly competitive varsity sports, like wrestling and gymnastics (a low weight is often equated with making the team); financial stress; and the fact that many live in dormitories and Greek houses, where unhealthy eating habits can spread like wildfire.
There also seems to be a gender gap. While men can develop eating disorders “for exactly the same reasons as women,” according to Mickley, homosexuality appears to be an added risk factor for male college students. Other studies suggest some females may use a weight obsession to numb the pain of date rape.
“It’s also possible eating disorders have nothing specifically to do with the college environment,” suggests Dr. James Mitchell, a University of North Dakota (UND, Fargo, ND) neuroscience professor and department chair, who has run a clinical eating disorders research program for nearly 25 years. “Coincidentally, the peak age for bulimia is 18, which just so happens to be the same age as most college freshmen.”
Regardless of why eating disorders are so prevalent on college campuses, one thing is certain: They are extremely destructive in all cases.
Anorexia, where people starve themselves below 15 percent of their normal body weight, can lead to infertility, osteoporosis, kidney failure, and heart disease. Bulimia, where sufferers binge and purge, can cause electrolyte imbalances, ruptured stomachs, enamel loss, and brain atrophy. Overeating, which involves binging without purging, increases the likelihood of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. And muscle dysmorphia (a primarily male-dominated disorder where a person feels too small, despite being extremely muscular) puts people at high risk for depression and steroid use.
Scared yet? Read on…
While bulimia is by far the most prevalent eating disorder on college campuses, there’s also another widespread problem out there that affects, in some cases, as many as 50 percent of students, according to Mickley.
“It’s called disordered eating, and it occurs when someone exhibits many of the same symptoms as anorexia or bulimia, but doesn’t meet full criteria for the disease,” Mickley warns. You know the type — it’s the compulsive dieter who somehow manages to maintain a normal weight, the occasional binger who never quite works up the nerve to throw up, or the gym rat who can’t even skip one day without panicking.
The main problem with disordered eating, besides the fact that its sufferers have almost a 50 percent chance of developing a full-blown eating disorder in three years, says Mickley, is that it interferes with one’s quality of life.
“It’s completely socially isolating,” Shanks agrees. “How are you supposed to enjoy college or learn anything when you’re constantly sitting in class comparing arms with the person in front of you?”
The Best Offense…
Knowing that imminent body image danger lies ahead, what can you, an intelligent, rational, soon-to-be college student, do to make sure you don’t fall victim to the eating disorder monster freshman year?
“Educate yourself now about nutrition, because knowledge is always the first step in prevention,” Mitchell suggests. “Also, look around and accept the fact that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Not everyone can be a size two.”
Other recommendations include pursuing a hobby you enjoy to reinforce the idea that you’re more than just a body. Join an on-campus club or organization to form a support network, and most importantly, be honest with yourself. If, deep down, you know you’re struggling with food issues, get help now (see below for suggestions), before you even think about leaving for school.
“I always tell high school kids if they deal with their eating disorders before college, they get AP credit,” Mickley says. “That way, when you arrive on campus and see other people struggling with food issues, you can look at them and think, I already did that!”
“Consult a professional — do not attempt to deal with it alone!” Shanks warns. A long-term follow-up study of “recovered” anorexics revealed that 25 percent became chronically ill or died after 10 years, and many others regained weight but remained psychologically damaged. That’s why it’s so important to get help. Here’s how:
- Contact your campus health center. Most students have instant access to a wealth of physicians, psychotherapists, registered dieticians, and other experts for a nominal (and, in some cases, non-existent!) fee.
- Educate yourself. There are many great resources available, like the National Eating Disorders Association Web site (www.nationaleatingdisorders.org) or the Rader Programs hotline (800-841-1515), which offers 24-hour anonymous, private information on eating disorders and international referral services.
- Reach out! Even if you’re not the one physically suffering, it’s important to develop a support network. The Something Fishy Web site (www.somethingfishy.org) holds frequent online chats on a variety of eating disorder-related topics, including recovery, treatment options, FAQs, and dealing with friends and family.
- Get involved. During National Eating Disorders Awareness week, held annually each spring, most campuses participate in body image awareness activities, such as scale-bashing pinatas and self-esteem workshops, which are a great way to promote self-acceptance.