Counseling Center

University of Mississippi

Eating Disorders

Eating and enjoying food is an essential part of being alive. The nutrition from food keeps us healthy, alert, and feeling good. The tastes and smells of food are some of the nicest pleasures in life. Sharing food is an important way for friends and family to come together. So, how can food be a problem?

Our society sends out mixed messages about food, messages which are contradictory and very destructive. On the one hand we are bombarded with images of delicious food and urged to eat, eat, eat. On the other hand, and this is especially true for women, images of thin-very thin- young models are presented to us as a physical ideal.

These mixed messages combined with other factors can lead some to develop problems with their eating habits. We call these problems “Eating Disorders,” since they affect normal, healthy functioning.

Eating disorders develop over time. In our culture dieting has become the norm. It is estimated that from 60 to 80% of American women are on diets. Studies show that many eating disorders begin when dieting gets out of control. Eating disorders are about 10 times as common in women as in men.

Many college-age women restrict food intake, resulting in severe weight loss. Ten to 20% of college-age women binge on large amounts of food and eliminate the food by vomiting, using laxatives, severe fasting, and/or over-exercising. These practices lead to secrecy and isolation, guilt and shame, and other negative feelings about oneself.

Common Behaviors That Often Signal Eating Problems

 

1. Not eating very much at all, usually in an attempt to stay thin, or . . .
2. Eating way too much and then possibly getting rid of the food by throwing up or taking laxatives, or engaging in excessive exercise.

 

 In time, these behaviors can lead to severe physical and emotional problems and interfere significantly with the ability to enjoy life and to feel good.

The Three Types of Eating Disorders

 Type of Disorder

Signs

 Anorexia Nervosa

“Anorexia” means loss of appetite and “nervosa” of course means nervous. So this type of eating disorder is just what it seems, a nervous loss of appetite. People with Anorexia Nervosa seriously endanger their health by not eating. Anorexia may represent an attempt to gain control over one’s life, especially when a person has felt little control over anything in the past.

 

Extreme weight loss due to excessive fasting. Perception of self as being fat despite being underweight. Preoccupation with food and an intense fear of becoming fat. Medical problems- including loss of menstrual periods in women, dry skin, cold hands and feet, digestive problems, hair loss, general weakness, and insomnia.

 Bulimia Nervosa

“Bulimia” comes to us from the Greek words for ox plus hunger, and suggests an insatiable appetite, one that can’t be satisfied. People with Bulimia Nervosa usually weigh within the normal range but they maintain it by purging food after overeating, which is not healthy. Bulimics tend to be impulsive and have a high need for approval.

 

Weight within normal range–although may be slightly above or below normal. Recurrent episodes of binge eating in a short period of time. Binge eating is followed by purging behaviors–vomiting, use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, and/or over exercising. Secrecy about eating habits.

Medical problems, including dehydration, constipation, digestive disorders, severe dental problems, and muscle weakness.

Binge-Eating Disorder

Those with a Binge-Eating Disorder have lost control of eating and are usually seriously overweight

 

Recurrent episodes of binge eating with loss of control. Binge eating episode is ended only when there is physical discomfort. Feelings of guilt, remorse or self contempt after eating. May be significantly overweight.

Possible Causes of Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are usually caused by an interplay of several factors. These can be generally grouped into Cultural Pressures, Biological Factors, and Psychological Factors.

1. Cultural and Social Pressures

No one can escape the continual bombardment of images of thin young girls as being the most attractive and the most successful. Even some young men feel they must maintain a slender build. College students are especially susceptible to such messages.

Of course, we all know we are seeing models in these images, models posing in beautiful photographs in order to sell us something. The truth is that these beautiful faces and bodies often hide a sad, unhealthy inner world. Some of these models are naturally thin, others have to resort to artificial and destructive means to be that way.

2. Biological Factors

Let’s face it. Not everyone is naturally thin or beautiful. We inherit a basic body type from our parents: we are tall, or short or medium in height. We may tend to be lean and muscular or we may tend to be heavy. Some people are overweight early in life and become thinner later. Some are thin most of their lives and experience weight gain later in life. Studies have found that there may be a significant hereditary component in developing eating disorders. People with a history of depression or alcoholism in their family are more likely to develop an eating disorder than those without such family history.

While we cannot change our basic body type, we can work to have the healthiest body within that type. It’s important to remember that bouts of purging, severe fasting, or excessive exercise can disrupt the body’s ability to maintain a healthy weight. They are counterproductive, to say the least.

3. Psychological Factors

Eating disorders are often a signal that the person has other problems like being a perfectionist, lacking assertiveness skills, and/or having low self esteem. Some students find it hard to deal with the pressures of college life, especially if there is the added burden of high expectations from the family.

The pleasure of food can appear to be a refuge and solace for problems- “Comfort Food” carried to the extreme! But it is a temporary “fix.”

Now take a look at the rest of the information to see if food is a problem for you, what you can do if you or one of your friends have an eating problem, and what resources are available to help you out.

Is Food a Problem for You?

If you think food might be a problem, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do you constantly think about eating, body weight and body size?

2. Do you find yourself panicking if you cannot exercise as planned, for fear of gaining weight?

3. When friends say that you’re too thin, do you refuse to believe them because you feel fat?

4. If you’re a female, has your menstrual period ceased or become irregular due to no known medical reason?

5. Do you go on eating binges and can’t stop until you feel sick?

6. Do you weigh yourself several times each day?

7. Have you ever taken laxatives or forced yourself to vomit after eating?

8. Do you feel guilty after eating?

9. Do you drink lots of liquids (water or soda) to “fill up” so you are not hungry?

If you answered yes to some of these, you may have an eating disorders or you may be developing one. Notice the words in boldface type. They indicate frequency and intensity of feelings or behaviors. These are often warning signs that a problem with food exists.

What You Can Do

Food Doesn’t Have to be a Problem!

A preoccupation with food, dieting, and body image can give food an inordinate control over a person’s life and result in damage to both health and looks. It can seriously interfere with the ability to enjoy life and to feel good. Beginning to understand the feelings that lead to unhealthy eating behaviors, however, is a first step to changing those behaviors so that food is no longer a problem.

If you think you have a problem, or you’re worried about a friend, check out the helping resources section for sources of assistance at The University of Texas and in the Austin area. There are also some national organizations which will provide additional information.

Here are some tips for dealing with an eating problem, whether it’s yours or a friend’s.

What you can do to help yourself–

If you have an eating disorder or you think you may be developing one, there are some definite steps you can take to help yourself.

1. Refuse to accept society’s expectations about eating habits and appearance.

2. Value your own good health as well as your external appearance.

3. Seek education from a registered dietitian (available free from University Health Services, 475-8242: balanced eating can help decrease binges.

4. Eat slowly, enjoy your food, and give yourself permission to stop when you feel full.

5. Think of food as the fuel your body needs to function, rather than as the enemy or as a consoling friend.

6. When you want to binge, purge, or not allow yourself to eat, identify the feelings you’re having-such as the “blues” or low self esteem.

7. After you’ve identified your feelings, you can then go to work to find healthier ways to manage them.

8. Consider seeking counseling from a professional who can help you identify the causes and help you work out a plan to overcome your problem.

What if you have a friend with a problem?

Here are some steps you can take to help out.

You may notice that a friend seems to have an eating disorder and wonder what you can do to help. Here are some tips.

1. Talk to your friend in general terms about her or his health, but don’t primarily focus on eating behavior, weight, or appearance.

2. Send “I” messages instead of “you” messages. For example, say “I am concerned because . . .” rather than “You need to stop weighing yourself ten times a day.”

3. If your friend has some concerns, listen with empathy and avoid making judgments.

4. Reach out to that person as a true friend, communicating that you care.

5. Avoid agreeing to keep your friend’s problem a secret, or doing things which might “cover up” your friend’s behavior (i.e., hiding food).

6. Be supportive and encourage your friend to seek help, perhaps using the resources listed at the end of this webpage.

7. If you are not a close acquaintance to the person, find another person who is a good friend. Messages are better received from close friends.

National Advocacy Groups for Eating Disorders

Note that CMHC does not endorse or recommend any site, product, or service provided on these sites. Also, website addresses change often, so these may not be correct.