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College Students and Eating Disorders: Anorexia, Bulimia, and Compulsive Eating Disorder

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Our society continues to prize thinness even as Americans become heavier than ever before. Almost everyone worries about their weight occasionally. People with eating disorders take these concerns to extremes and develop abnormal eating habits that can threaten their well-being and even their lives.

Adolescents and young women account for 90 percent of eating disorder cases. Eating disorders can also affect men. Eating disorders are often practiced in private. Sometimes family and friends never suspect a thing. An awareness of their abnormal behavior cause many people with eating disorders to withdraw from social contact, hide their behaviors, and deny that their eating has become problematic. Making an accurate diagnosis requires the involvement of a mental health expert or physician.

There are psychological factors that can predispose people to eating disorders. Dysfunctional families or relationships, personality traits, low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness, and intense dissatisfaction with the way they look can all contribute to an eating disorder. Once people start engaging in abnormal eating behaviors, the problem can snowball. Binging can set a vicious cycle in motion.

Eating disorders usually don’t go away on their own. Not treating them can have serious consequences. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one in ten anorexia cases ends in death from starvation, suicide, or medical complications like heart attacks or kidney failure. Eating disorders can devastate the body and the mind. People with eating disorders have higher rates of other mental health disorders — including depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse — than other people.

Treating an eating disorder often requires a multidisciplinary approach. A physician may be called on to rule out medical illnesses and to determine that the patient is not in immediate physical danger. A nutritionist may be asked to help assess and improve nutritional intake. A psychologist will be called upon to identify important issues that require attention and to develop a treatment plan. While changing a patient’s thoughts and behaviors are a therapeutic goal, the psychological issues underlying the eating disorder must be examined. Group therapy may also be helpful. Treatment involves learning how to manage the symptoms, figuring out how the symptoms help the individual to cope, and learning alternative ways to cope that are more effective.

Some patients, especially those with bulimia, may benefit from medication. It’s important to remember that medication should be used in combination with psychotherapy, not as a replacement for it. Patients who are advised to take medication should be aware of possible side effects and the need for close supervision by a physician.

Most cases of eating disorder can be treated successfully. It is important to know that treatments do not work instantly. For many patients, treatment needs to be long-term. The sooner treatment starts the better. The longer abnormal eating patterns continue the more deeply ingrained they become and the more difficult they are to treat.

Some common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

Anorexia is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. People with anorexia tend to be perfectionists. Symptoms include:

  • Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a normal weight for height, body type, age, and activity level
  • Intense fear of weight gain or of being “fat”
  • Feeling “fat” despite dramatic weight loss
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Bulimia is characterized by a secretive cycle of binge-eating followed by purging. Bulimia includes eating large amounts of food in short periods of time, then getting rid of the food and calories through vomiting, laxative abuse, or over-exercising. People who suffer from bulimia are often impulsive. Symptoms include:

  • Repeated episodes of bingeing and purging
  • Feeling out of control during a binge and eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness
  • Purging after a binge, (usually by self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills, diuretics, excessive exercise, or fasting)
  • Frequent dieting
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Binge Eating Disorder (commonly known as compulsive overeating) is characterized by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. There is no purging involved, but there may be occasional fasts or repeated dieting. Feelings of shame or self-hatred are common after a binge. Body weight may vary from normal, moderate, or severe obesity.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms or if you feel that your eating habits are problematic in any way, seek help. Go to the counseling center for information. Go to the health center for a physical exam. There may also be an eating disorders group on campus that can help you. Whatever you do, make sure to take that first step in getting help. You will find there is help for your problem.

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