Eating disorders: Know the symptoms, not the stigma

Students between the ages of 18 and 21 are most likely to exhibit signs of eating disorders. Kelly Steiner/The Buzz.
Students between the ages of 18 and 21 are most likely to exhibit signs of eating disorders. Kelly Steiner/The Buzz.

By Kelly Steiner

Chances are you heard the debate just a few weeks ago over whether the most recent “Biggest Loser” winner, Rachel Frederickson, was anorexic. Or you may remember Demi Lovato’s admissions to having an eating disorder and practicing self-harm. But eating disorders aren’t glamorous problems that only hit Hollywood. In fact, it’s more likely that you’ll develop one right here on this campus. Chances are you already know someone who has or has had some kind of eating disorder, even if you’re not aware of it.

“Statistically speaking, eating disorders are problematic on college campuses,” said St. Ambrose counselor Amy Scott.

In fact, college students are at the highest risk of developing an eating disorder. Students between the ages of 18 and 21 are the most likely to exhibit signs of full-blown eating disorders, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA).

But you would know if you saw someone with these issues, right? Not necessarily.

“The nature of the illness tends to be secretive,” Scott said, adding that it’s a myth that you can tell a person is suffering from an eating disorder just by their appearance. “It’s not easy to spot.”

Scott said you’re more likely to notice changes in a friend or roommate’s behavior, such as hearing them making themselves vomit, noticing binge eating, or a refusal to eat along with a negative body image.

If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to NEDA, 25 percent of college students are bingeing and purging as a diet to maintain or lose weight, something Scott said isn’t healthy. While this statistic is alarming enough to be important all the time, Scott is hoping to raise even more awareness during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Feb. 24-March 1.

“That is a pretty sizable chunk of the college population,” Scott said of the figure. “I routinely work with a variety of people with disordered eating patterns, negative body image and full-blown eating disorders.”

But that’s not the only staggering number. 91 percent of women attempt to control their weight with dieting, and NEDA reports that 1 in 4 of those women will develop an eating disorder as a result.

And while it’s more common to hear about women’s body issues, men can struggle with eating disorders too. In fact, 10 to 15 percent of cases of anorexia and bulimia are in males, according to Scott and NEDA. Scott said she even sees some males at the counseling center at Ambrose struggling with these issues.

But, there is good news. Treatment is widely available, including right here on campus. As more is known about eating disorders, they’re becoming less of a taboo subject, making it easier to get help. However, those suffering may find it difficult to admit they have a problem.

“For someone to stop eating disorder behavior, they have to want to get better,” Scott said. “Recovery is different for every person.”

Fortunately, more people have been getting help. “In the last few years, I’ve seen more people than ever before,” Scott said, adding that she’s also been reaching out to students and attending lots of training sessions to know how to best treat the issues. “Eating disorders are really complex illnesses. No two eating disorders are alike. They’re extremely different for each person.”

Students experienced what healthy eating really is from guest speaker dietitian and nutritionist Sue Clarahan. She explained that healthy eating is different for each person based on our needs, a key lesson for anyone struggling with image issues or disordered eating.

If you worry about a friend’s eating habits, Scott said to approach the subject with care. “Be kindhearted and empathetic. Take an easy and gentle approach,” she said, adding that it can be hard to be approached with this difficult topic. If that person still refuses to get help, Scott said another possible step could be to alert a resident advisor or hall director.

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