Eating disorders are not just about one’s struggle with food. They are about feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, and an exhausting drive toward perfection and control. Eating disorders are characterized by a rigid focus on weight, body shape, fat, and food. They can occur at any age, but they commonly begin during the teenage years. While each eating disorder has its own unique symptoms, it is possible to have a mixed group of symptoms, such as anorexia nervosa with purging.
Attending college can be a major stressor for someone battling an eating disorder. The pressure to fit in and make new friends is accompanied by societal pressures that define being thin as being attractive. This can lead both men and women to strive for a body weight that is unnatural and unhealthy. While they are serious and can have life-threatening consequences, eating disorders can be resolved with the help of a qualified counselor.
Here are the basic definitions and symptoms of common eating disorders provided by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA).
Anorexia nervosa is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Symptoms include:
- Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age, and activity level
- Extreme concern with body weight and shape; feeling overweight despite dramatic weight loss
- Loss of menstrual periods
Bulimia nervosa involves eating large amounts of food--more than most people would eat in one meal--in short periods of time, then getting rid of the food and calories through vomiting, laxative abuse, or over-exercising. Symptoms include:
- Repeated episodes of binging and purging
- Feeling out of control during a binge and eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness
- Purging after a binge, (typically by self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills or diuretics, excessive exercise, or fasting)
- Frequent dieting
- Extreme concern with body weight and shape
Binge eating disorder is also known as compulsive overeating, and is characterized primarily by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive, or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. While there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets and often feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge.
People who overeat compulsively may struggle with anxiety, depression, and loneliness, which can contribute to their unhealthy episodes of binge eating. Body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate, or severe obesity.
Other eating disorders can include some combination of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. While they may not be clinically considered full syndrome eating disorders, these behaviors can still be physically dangerous and emotionally draining. All require professional help.
When to Be Concerned
If you have any suspicion that you have – or may be developing – an eating disorder, treatment is recommended to avoid worsening symptoms.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Do you weigh yourself often and/or are obsessed with the number on the scale?
- Do you constantly track calories?
- Do you ever feel out of control when you are eating?
- Are you practicing extreme dieting?
- Do you secretively binge?
- Are you worried about your weight, shape, or size of your body?
- Is your identity based on how you look and how much you weigh?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be developing patterns that could lead to a more serious eating disorder.
What to do if You are Concerned about a Friend
Set aside time to talk privately. Convey your thoughts in a caring and straightforward way. Encourage your friend to talk about struggles and self-image. This may be more comfortable than specifically talking about the eating disorder. It can also be helpful to:
- Express your concerns without being judgmental. Give specific behavioral examples. Avoid placing shame or guilt for your friend’s behavior and attitude. Use a calm, supportive, and directive approach.
- Explain that you feel these concerns warrant professional help. Expect denial and resistance. Offer to help make an appointment and walk with your friend to the SDCC.
- Find outside help for yourself. You can talk to a counselor, doctor, or attend a support group for family and friends of people with eating disorders.
- Avoid making comments on weight or appearance. Even complimenting may reinforce the belief that a person’s value is tied to physical appearance.
- Learn as much as you can about eating disorders. It will help you understand where your friend is coming from.
- Be patient. Your friend may not change dramatically overnight. Overcoming an eating disorder is not about willpower. It takes time and the support of friends, family, and professionals.
Services at WPI
Eating disorders can be treated. If you or a student you know could benefit from treatment for an eating disorder, stop by the Student Development and Counseling Center. Your meeting will be completely confidential. You can also make an appointment by calling 508-831-5540.
Individuals who actively participate in treatment will gain knowledge and skills in these areas:
- A better understanding of their eating disorder
- A greater awareness of triggers and urges—and skills to respond to them in ways that promote personal wellness as opposed to destructive behaviors
- Realistic thought processes
- Healthy eating and exercise patterns
- Enhanced self esteem
- Management of self-harm, impulsive behavior, and substance use
- Coping skills to deal with anxiety and depression
- Communication and assertiveness skills to improve relationships and build more authentic connections with others
Optimally, an interdisciplinary team should facilitate treatment that includes medical evaluation, monitoring, and personal counseling. The SDCC staff is able to work collaboratively with WPI Health Services and primary care physicians. In addition, the staff at the SDCC may provide a referral to a local provider that specializes in the treatment of eating disorders.
- About Face
- Eating Disorder Publications Resource Catalog
- Eating Disorder Recovery Online
- Freedom from Eating Disorders
- Massachusetts Eating Disorder Association (MEDA)
- National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA)
- Online Self Assessment Tool
- The Eating Disorder Foundation
We have included links to other websites and we encourage students to evaluate the materials and to use what they find to be helpful. Please keep in mind that WPI cannot assume responsibility for information on other websites.
Information on the web is not intended as a substitute for assistance from the SDCC. For personal assistance, WPI students should contact the SDCC at 508-831-5540 to schedule an appointment with one of our professional staff members.