Eating disorders are a group of behaviors characterized by obsession with food intake, weight and body image. Anorexia is associated with an extreme desire to be thin and an abnormal perception of body shape and weight. Patients greatly fear any weight gain, even though they may be severely underweight. They may skip meals, eat only tiny amounts of low-calorie or “safe” foods and exercise excessively.
People with bulimia may eat a considerable amount of food at one sitting, and then try to prevent weight gain by purging, or eliminating the calories. Purging may be done through self-induced vomiting, taking many laxatives or exercising excessively. Often people with bulimia will eat in secret to hide their abnormal eating habits.
Binge-eating disorder is similar to bulimia. However, patients are unable to control their impulsive eating episodes. They don’t purge to eliminate calories, but may compensate through sporadic dieting or food fasts.
The National Eating Disorders Association estimates about 11 million Americans have some type of eating disorder. Women are affected ten times more often than men. Over time, the abnormal eating patterns can lead to malnutrition, bone loss, dental disease (from stomach acids on the teeth), muscle loss, sleep problems, low blood pressure, anemia, osteoporosis, arthritis, infertility, seizures, heart problems and, in severe cases, death.
Fearing Freshmen Weight Gain
More than 18 million students are enrolled in American colleges and universities. For many, it’s the first time away from home and close supervision from parents. Unlimited food choices in college cafeterias, extra snacks and high calorie beverages can take a toll on students’ waist lines. Some writers have called the weight gain phenomenon, “Freshman 15,” to reflect an estimated 15-pound weight gain by college freshmen. However, studies show that, while up to three-fourths of freshmen gain weight in their first year of college, the average weight gain isn’t anywhere near 15 pounds. In fact, most students gain about 3 to 6 pounds during their freshman year.
Despite the availability of food and snacks, many students buckle under peer pressure to stay thin. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports 58 percent of college women feel pressured to maintain a certain weight and 25 percent of them binge and purge to control their weight.
The mixed messages associated with food frenzies and staying healthy may contribute to another type of eating disorder seen among some college students. It’s called Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS). Susan Yussman, M.D., Pediatrician with the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, NY, says these students have a real eating disorder, but don’t fully meet the criteria for diagnosis of anorexia or bulimia. Though the exact incidence isn’t known, she estimates EDNOS affects a considerable number of students.
Since students with EDNOS don’t meet all the criteria of an eating disorder, they may not get a proper diagnosis or help. However, the abnormal eating patterns can still cause serious health problems. In fact, Yussman says some of the patients with most severe consequences are those with EDNOS, rather than anorexia or bulimia.
Tips to Fight Weight Gain
Yussman says college students can reduce the risk for weight gain by eating healthy meals and getting enough exercise. Aim for three balanced meals (including breakfast) and two snacks each day, keeping an eye on calories, fat and portion sizes. Be careful about snacking while studying and limit alcohol intake. Drinking not only piles on the calories, it reduces the ability to say “no” to bad foods. Exercise is very important. Many students who were regularly active in high school become couch potatoes in college. Make sure to schedule some physical activity into every day. Students who have a hard time getting motivated to work out should use the time as a “social” event with their friends.
For information on eating disorders:
Mental Health America, http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net
National Alliance on Mental Illness, http://www.nami.org
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, http://www.anad.org
National Eating Disorders Association, http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
National Institute of Mental Health, http://www.nimh.nih.gov
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