Eating Disorders: A Campus Concern

Although eating disorders are not limited to any particular age group of women, they are certainly more prevalent among college-aged women. Women who suffer from eating disorders have an intense fear of gaining weight and are unduly influenced by and concerned with body shape and weight. They may “binge and purge” by eating a large amount of food and then use laxatives or make themselves vomit. Eventually, they may develop serious medical complications as a result of an eating disorder. Researchers are trying to discover how and why voluntary behaviors, such as eating smaller or larger amounts of food than usual, develop into an eating disorder and reach the point where it’s uncontrollable for some women.

Authors Sara Dulaney Gilbert and Mary Commerford believe that many times eating disorders emerge when students go away to college.

“Leaving home, family and friends to face new social challenges can be tremendously stressful, especially when other students with whom they come into contact and who already have eating disorders, set an example for the uninitiated.”

Gilbert and Commerford believe the problem is commonplace. “In women’s dorms and dining halls on college campuses, not eating is reported to be a way of life. These young women take pride in how little they’ve consumed in a given day. Consequently, eating disorder centers are becoming as commonplace on campuses across the country as career centers.”

Experts say eating disorders are compulsive behaviors that are about control and comfort when things feel chaotic — especially during times such as the college years. On many campuses across the country, there is a concentrated effort to address the problem of eating disorders in young women. According to dietician, Cathy Barbano, most college programs take a dual approach toward eating disorders – treating people who already have an eating disorder and preventing eating disorders through educational programming, social marketing and social activism.

Part of Barbano’s preventative work involves reshaping how young women think about their bodies. She believes negative self-talk is what leads people to the extreme measures of vomiting and starvation. “I do not recommend dieting or food restrictions in order to lose weight,” Barbano says. “Most dieters (and that includes anyone who restricts) will experience a backlash after they get off the diet. This backlash consists of binges, cravings, overeating, dislike of nutritious foods and exercise and can contribute to the development of an eating disorder.”

Instead, in her treatment plans she focuses on eliminating excess calories such as snacking when not hungry, eating past fullness at meal times, and she helps students enjoy nutritious eating and exercise.

Barbano also firmly believes that having students actively involved in educational and preventative efforts is crucial. The University of Central Florida has an Eating Disorders Task Force comprised of staff, faculty, students, physicians, psychologists, mental health counselors and health educators. They plan campus-wide events, promote Eating Disorders Awareness Week, provide speakers to sorority houses, and provide peer-led workshops on body image.

As part of the trend toward student involvement, the University of Pennsylvania has a student-run group that has professional support. The group is called GUIDE, Guidance for Understanding Image, Dieting and Eating, and just recently held the first ever student-led conference on body image. Their focus is on social change activism. They encourage women to learn to listen to and accept their bodies and recognize that each body has individual physiological needs – what works for one body isn’t necessarily right for another. Social change is their goal – for women to stop hating their bodies.

Experts agree that in treating eating disorders the most important realization is to know that they CAN be treated. Typically, treatment of eating disorders is tailored to meet an individual’s needs. Often, a combination of health professionals, such as physicians, nutritionists, and therapists will team together to provide a comprehensive plan in order to improve success. The primary goal is to reduce or eliminate the binge eating and purging behavior. Research has shown that once a structured pattern of eating is established, the person experiences a reduction in negative feelings about food and eating and the frequency of binges decreases.

Gilbert and Commerford say that the ultimate goal of therapy is to restore order to eating patterns through varying approaches to maintain a healthy body weight.

“Patients are often surprised at the harm they are doing to their bodies or by the fact that their patterns of thought and behavior are common to many other people.”

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