Guest column: The silent struggle: College students and eating disorders

By Gus Bode

For some students, Valentine’s Day marketing and hype only emphasize the lack of a romantic partner. Rather than buy into the Hallmark holiday, use this day as an opportunity to care about yourself and your unique qualities, rather than picking on yourself. For example, many college students struggle with disordered eating habits. In the United States alone, conservative estimates indicate that 5-10 million females and 1 million males are struggling with anorexia or bulimia, and millions more suffer with binge eating.

At one time, it was thought that body image issues and eating disordered behaviors were found primarily in white, middle-class females. Recent research suggests that most minority groups, across all economic levels, are at risk of developing an eating disorder and men now account for approximately 10 percent of all disorders.

A lesser-known condition is muscle dysmorphic syndrome, which is characterized by feelings of never looking ‘buff’ or muscular enough. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as steroid use, in an attempt to achieve optimal muscle mass.

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There are many symptoms associated with eating disorders that can impact everyday living such as poor concentration, fatigue, irritability and food preoccupation. There are also possible long-term medical consequences such as infertility, brain shrinkage, osteoporosis, dental issues and heart failure. Thousands of people die each year as the result of complications from eating disorders. In fact, it has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

While the medical complications are severe, it is often the psychological aspects of eating disorders that students find devastating. Many college students spend their entire academic life counting calories, hating their bodies and isolating themselves. They lose so much more than just weight:’ Grades suffer, friendships end and self-worth declines. Loneliness is often one of the most common emotions experienced by those dealing with eating disorders and being in college surrounded by other students often magnifies this painful feeling.’

If someone you care about is struggling with food or body issues, there are some things you can do. First, research the topic to ensure that your concerns are valid. The Wellness Center has information on this topic, or go to http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.

When you address your friend it is important to have specific examples to support your concerns. Because many people are embarrassed or ashamed of their behaviors, it’s also important that this matter is gently discussed in private, allowing for enough time. Denial is part of disordered eating, so don’t be surprised if your friend denies there is a problem. Just let them know you are there for support and offer to go along to see a medical professional.’

Eating disorders can be life-threatening, but help is available. SIUC offers the Eating Disorder Outpatient Program (EDOP). If you are concerned about your relationship with your body or food, please call the Student Health Center Wellness Center at 536-4441 or the Counseling Center at 453-5371 for a confidential appointment. If you are unsure if your thoughts and behaviors may indicate disordered eating habits, you can take a simple assessment at www.mentalhealthscreening.org/screening/welcome.asp, enter password:’ siucwellness.

Gill is a licensed dietician and coordinator at Student Health Programs Wellness Center.

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