There are a variety of eating disorders that prove a challenge to college students, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Most people know someone who complains about being fat, or who always seems to be counting calories. However, 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, obsessive-compulsive disorder and borderline personality 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.
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.
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. Repeated vomiting or use of laxatives can cause several serious medical complications.
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.
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.
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