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Eating Disorders

There are a variety of eating disorders that prove a challenge to college students, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.

Most people know somebody who complains about being fat. Or who always seems to be counting calories. But there’s a big difference between “normal” dieting or weight concerns and eating disorders. Eating disorders are compulsions to eat or avoid eating that are harmful to one’s physical and mental health. They can cause serious and potentially fatal medical problems that affect the heart, brain and other body organs. Eating disorders can co-occur with other disorders, most commonly depression, social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Men can have these disorders, too, though they are much more common in women.

Eating disorders are unhealthy coping mechanisms that can arise to handle stress and anxieties. They aren’t motivated by vanity, either. Actually, people with eating disorders often have low self-esteem or feelings of helplessness. Because eating disorders are compulsive behaviors, it’s difficult for some people to stop even when they want to. The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.

Anorexia
A person with anorexia has an obsessive fear about being overweight. Anorexics lose weight by voluntary starvation, purging, excessive exercise, or other weight control measures. Research suggests that people with anorexia restrict food to gain a sense of control in some area of their lives. They often have a negative or distorted body image—they believe they’re overweight even when they’re dangerously thin. It’s estimated that as many as 1 in 10 people with anorexia will die from complications of the disorder.

Bulimia
In contrast, a person with bulimia is often a normal weight for their age and height. In fact, their friends and loved ones may not even realize that anything is wrong. But behind closed doors, bulimics can eat huge amounts of food, then try to get rid of the extra calories by making themselves vomit or taking laxatives. People with bulimia often binge and purge in secrecy, feeling ashamed when they binge, yet relieved once they purge. Like anorexics, bulimics usually don’t feel good about their bodies and have a distorted body image.

Binge-Eating Disorder
Binge-eaters also overeat regularly, although they do not purge. Taking seconds at dinner, or plowing through a bag of cookies once in a while, is probably not a symptom of binge eating. Binge eating is a recurring, compulsive behavior that’s often associated with feelings of guilt or depression. Binge eaters may be ashamed by their gorging, but can’t find a way to stop. Bing eaters may or may not show obvious physical signs of a disorder; they may be overweight, but they might also be normal weight.

Learn the signs and symptoms »

It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between an eating disorder and typical weight concerns or dieting. It doesn’t help that people with eating disorders often try to hide their behavior. Here are some warning signs:

Anorexia

  • Weighing 15% or more below normal body weight
  • Weight loss, sometimes by means of self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives or enemas, or excessive exercise
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Seeing oneself as overweight no matter how underweight
  • Anxious or ritualistic behavior at mealtimes
  • Menstrual changes or the absence of menstruation in women
  • Fatigue
  • Depression

Bulimia:

  • Repeatedly eating larger than normal amounts of food in a short period of time and feeling unable to control this behavior
  • Preventing weight gain after a binge by means of self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives or enemas, fasting, or excessive exercise
  • Unhealthy focus on body shape and weight
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Discolored teeth and gums

Binge Eating:

  • Repeatedly eating larger than normal amounts of food in a short period of time and feeling unable to control this behavior
  • Eating even when full
  • Eating rapidly during binge episodes
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Frequent dieting without weight loss
  • Frequently eating alone
  • Hoarding food
  • Hiding empty food containers
  • Feeling depressed, disgusted, or upset about eating

Learn about getting help »

Fortunately, there are a variety of treatments for eating disorders, such as counseling and/or medication. To successfully treat an eating disorder, both the emotional and physical symptoms should be addressed. Treatment deals with any medical or nutritional problems, as well as promoting a healthy relationship with food and teaching more positive ways to cope. If you are concerned that you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, contact your school’s health center, especially if thoughts of suicide are present. Your campus health center can connect you with a therapist or group counseling. The health center can also provide the appropriate medical treatment if someone is suffering from nutritional complications.

Please be sure to select your school above so we can provide you with information about resources and help on or near your campus.

Learn how to help a friend »

Are you worried that a friend or loved one may have an eating disorder? You may see warning signs that they can’t or don’t want to acknowledge. Maybe they’ve lost or gained an extreme amount of weight. They might frequently obsess about food or criticize their body. Or perhaps you’ve noticed that they rarely seem to eat, or will head to the restroom immediately after a meal. Don’t assume that the problem will go away on its own, or that your friend can just “snap out of it.”

Before talking about your concerns with your friend, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on the symptoms and causes of specific eating disorders. Explain to your friend that lately they’ve been behaving in ways that worry you. Some people get defensive or angry when they’re confronted; your conversation may go more smoothly if you don’t judge, get upset, or make accusations. Instead, try listening to your friend and asking open-ended questions about their feelings. You can’t force your friend into action, but you can make a big difference by offering your encouragement and help in seeking treatment.