It goes without saying that food, like sleep and water, is necessary for survival. Eating disorders involve significant disturbances in eating patterns and thus are serious and sometimes fatal illnesses. The illness can manifest as an extreme and unhealthy restriction of food intake, severe overeating and/or regular vomiting or laxative use, along with extreme concern about weight or body shape, feelings of distress around eating and body image, and intrusive thoughts about food or eating. Many people develop an eating disorder without intending to do so. They may be trying to lose weight or exercise to get in shape and gradually end up losing control over their behavior. Current research is trying to understand how something which was once voluntary, like having smaller portions, becomes “involuntary” and develops into an eating disorder. Appetite control is clearly altered by starvation or overeating and the changes are just beginning to be understood. Cognitive changes also accompany starvation and overeating.
The involuntary component is very important to understand. Eating disorders are not due to a failure of will or effort; individuals who often think they can “just stop it” find they really cannot “just stop”. This is a real but treatable medical and psychological illness in which maladaptive eating patterns take on a life of their own. The alterations in eating cause serious health issues, including heart conditions, kidney failure and irreversible bone loss. Because the effects are so serious and the illness has a life of its own, it is extremely important that individuals seek help. It is very difficult if not impossible to overcome single-handedly the illness once it has reached a certain point in its progression. Thus the sooner a person gets treatment, the more likely a quicker return to health.
Because of their complexity, eating disorders require a comprehensive treatment approach with medical monitoring, nutritional counseling and psychotherapy. Sometimes medication can also be helpful to the individual. If the eating disorder has progressed to the point that medical safety is questionable, hospitalization may be necessary. The clinicians in the counseling center work closely with health services to provide comprehensive care to our students. Medical monitoring and nutritional counseling are valuable components of treatment.
There are three major types of eating disorders. Both males and females can develop all three but females are much more likely to develop an eating disorder. Anorexia Nervosa involves resistance to maintaining a normal body weight and intense fear of gaining weight despite being underweight. Individuals often have disturbances in their perceptions of their shape or body and a denial that their low weight is serious or is reflective of what they look like. Infrequent or absent menstrual periods in women is often caused by low body weight. Bulimia Nervosa involves binging on excessive amounts of food followed by behavior to prevent weight gain from the binging. Individuals may induce vomiting, misuse diuretics/laxatives/enemas, fast, or excessively exercise to prevent the possible weight gain. The binging and other behaviors, on average, occur at least twice weekly for three months. Individuals with bulimia tend to be normal weight but they are overly dissatisfied with their bodies and often feel intense shame around the binging–purging cycle. Binge-Eating Disorder is similar to Bulimia except that individuals do not use regular compensatory behaviors such as purging to avoid weight gain. Episodes of the binge eating are associated with several other factors, including eating faster than normal, eating so much that physical discomfort develops, eating alone due to embarrassment, or feeling guilty, depressed or disgusted after eating. These episodes must occur at least twice weekly for six months or longer.
In addition to the symptoms described above, all of these disorders can alter the electrolyte balance in your body, making you susceptible to cardiac and other system failures. This is one of the major reasons these disorders are life-threatening.
If you are concerned about yourself or a friend, call us or call Student Health Services to discuss the issue. You can also get more information from other resources or take the self-evaluation on Ulifeline. Remember, the sooner you get help with the problem, the easier and the quicker the problem is to treat!