Everybody knows somebody. Your sister, brother, best friend or roommate could all be impacted. Eating disorders do not discriminate. Every person that has struggled with an eating disorder or has watched a loved one struggle can understand how complicated and all-encompassing such a disorder can be.
An eating disorder does not only impact food and eating behaviors, it affects every aspect of a person’s life. Constant calorie counting, excessive exercise and obsessive weighing may sound like normal weight control behaviors, but these behaviors may be signs of disordered eating. In a society that praises dieting and promotes shows like “The Biggest Loser,” it can be challenging to understand where to draw the line between normal and abnormal eating behavior.
An estimated 91 percent of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. What may begin as a well-intentioned plan to lose weight or get in shape can lead to obsessive, even dangerous weight-control techniques. The college environment, with all of its stressors and pressure to conform, can create a perfect storm for eating disorders. In fact, 95 percent of those who have eating disorders are between the ages of 12 to 25, with 86 percent reporting an onset of an eating disorder by age 20. College students may be particularly vulnerable due to a drive for perfectionism, peer pressure and the stress and anxiety of academic life. Fixation on food or weight may become a coping strategy to manage anxiety or depression, or even to gain a sense of control.
Eating disorders are extreme attitudes, behaviors and beliefs about food, eating and weight. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are the three eating disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, although disordered eating may exist outside of these clinical definitions. It is critical to understand that eating disorders are not just about food or weight, they are mental health issues that require coordinated care from a counselor or psychiatrist, as well as a physician and dietitian. Early intervention and treatment is important to recovery and minimizing the physical and mental health risks.
As a friend or sibling of someone with an eating disorder, it can seem daunting to help. The truth is, you are in a position to offer support. If you suspect that a friend or loved one is struggling, it is important to have a private conversation, free from blame or anger. Express your concern, using “I” statements, in a sincere and non-confrontational way. Try suggesting different resources on campus, such as the Counseling and Testing Center and nutrition counseling. Last but not least, be patient and understand that there are no “easy solutions” or “quick fixes.” Recognize each person’s struggle is unique and the road to recovery can be a long journey.
All eating disorders share a common trait — low-self esteem or poor body image. So what can we do to change a culture that values thinness and perfection above health? We can start by adjusting our values system. For starters, there is no place for fat talk, body shaming or body checking. Treating your body with the respect and admiration that it deserves, whatever your current size or shape, is an important first step. Lastly, accept yourself and all your perfect flaws because you deserve acceptance, especially from yourself.
Marissa Lucas, RD, LD, UI campus dietician, can be reached at 208-885-6717 or firstname.lastname@example.org