What do I do if I suspect my student has an eating disorder?

There is a lot of pressure in our society to maintain the cultural ideal of beauty and this can lead to unhealthy eating patterns.  For many students, the focus on appearance becomes more and more important so that they will do anything to be thin.    Our culture continues to glamorize thin people and to perpetuate the myth that thin is better.  There is also a great deal of confusion about what constitutes healthy eating, appropriate portion sizes and caloric intake.  Sometimes an effort to lose weight or eat more healthy meals can lead to distorted eating or even to an eating disorder.  Dieting and excessive exercise can become dangerous obsessions, resulting in an eating disorder such as Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa or Binge Eating Disorder. 

Signs and Symptoms of an Eating Disorder

Anorexia is characterized primarily by restricting calories and striving to lose an excessive and unhealthy amount of weight.   It becomes a vicious and unending cycle of wanting to lose weight, reaching the lower goal weight and then setting an even lower weight goal.  Often anorexia may start with wanting to lose a reasonable amount of weight and eat in a healthier way but this soon becomes an obsession and the person’s focus is encompassed by food, weight, calories and appearance to the detriment of other things in their lives such as school, work, friends, family and hobbies.  Symptoms include:

  • Refusal to maintain weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height and age
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Restricting calories, refusal to eat certain food
  • Preoccupation with weight, food calories and diets
  • Excessive exercising
  • Avoiding activities that include eating
  • Distorted and poor body image

Bulimia is characterized by a secretive cycle of uncontrollable binge eating followed by purging .  Symptoms include:

  • Feeling out of control during a binge
  • Purging after a binge eg) self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise,laxative use ,diet pills
  • Using the bathroom frequently after eating
  • Making excuses not to eat with others and then eating secretively alone
  • Distorted andpoor body image

Binge Eating Disorder is similar to Bulimia Nervosa but there is no purging behaviors.   Often people will fast or diet and then binge and experience weight fluctuations. 

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder and eating disorders in general are associated with many health issues including insomnia, hair loss, fertility issues, dental problems,  depression, anxiety, memory and concentration  problems, dizziness and fainting,  irritability and more serious problems such as heart, liver and kidney problems. 

You may notice the following signs of an eating disorder in your student:

  1. Drastic change in weight
  2. Fatigue, sleepiness
  3. Poor concentration
  4. Poor memory
  5. Rigidity in thinking “all or none” thinking
  6. Perfectionistic
  7. Low self-esteem
  8. Withdrawal from others
  9. Preoccupation with weight, calories, appearance and food
  10. Depression and/or anxiety

For more information about eating disorders, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is an excellent resource:  www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

The Ball State University Counseling Center offers individual and group counseling for students with eating disorders.  We also sponsor National Eating Disorders Awareness Week the last week in February and offer free screenings and information on healthy eating and weight management.