Eating disorders refers to a variety of disturbed eating behaviors, all associated with using food for emotional reasons. They range along a continuum from chronic dieting to compulsive overeating to cycles of binging and purging to self-starvation. While the frequency and severity of the problems differ, they all have in common turning to food as a way to cope with problems. Often, there is an underlying belief that being thinner would be a solution to troubles and demonstrate proof of control in one’s life. For many, people the presence of an eating disorder is related to stressors or emotional concerns that are not being addressed in other areas of their life.
Eating disorders are common among the college age population. The majority of individuals with eating disorders are women (about 90%) although men can also have eating disorders. Women are especially vulnerable to eating disorders because of the societal emphasis placed on appearance, external approval, and thinness as an ideal.
The most frequent problem is chronic dieting (normative behavior among college women), followed by compulsive overeating, bulimia, and anorexia. The following descriptions of eating disorders focus on these types, although keep in mind that not everyone fits a “type.”
The three most common eating disorders are:
Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by a person being 15 percent below their normal body weight; feels fat, despite being thin; persistent fear of being fat; restricted eating; and erratic menstrual cycle or a loss of menstrual cycle for at least three months.
Bulimia Nervosa is characterized by a person engaging in recurrent episodes of binge eating, followed sometimes by attempts to purge through self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, or excessive exercising. The person may or may not purge. The person is often secretive about binging and/or purging. The person will also feel a loss of control over eating.
Binge Eating Disorder is similar to bulimia, however, the person does not engage in behaviors to manage uncomfortable feelings about eating such as vomiting, excessive exercising, laxatives, etc. The person engages in recurrent episodes of binge eating and feels a loss of control.
- Weight loss or weight gain.
- Feeling weak or fatigued.
- Frequent/regular vomiting.
- Excessive or compulsive exercising.
- Frequent puffy, red eyes.
- Stomach acid erodes tooth enamel.
- Not eating, eating extremely small portions, cutting food in very small bites, filling a plate and throwing it away.
- Wearing baggy clothes.
- Bad breath.
Though eating disorders are a common occurrence, especially in the college population, they often go untreated. In part this may be due to the fact that many individuals don’t fit into the clear categories described above, but still engage in concerning disordered eating. It is important to know, however, that if disordered eating or a specific eating disorder goes untreated it often worsens and can be deadly. Therefore, it is important that if you have concerns you attempt to address them. Eating disorders are often very difficult to treat, but the sooner it is caught, the better off a person will be.
It is helpful to:
- Be supportive and caring.
- Speak to the person in private about your concerns and let them respond.
- Suggest seeking professional help.
- If the person denies a problem (a common reaction) let them know you may check in again at a later time.
- If you are worried, contact a counselor for consultation.
It is not helpful to:
- Ignore the problem
- Take responsibility for altering her/his eating behavior or any other problems.
- Focus on eating and weight only.
- Act angry or disappointed.
- Get into an argument about whether there is a problem or not.