The start of college can be one big stressor, marked by anxiety about finances, academics and relationships. It can be enough to push some people at risk of an eating disorder into the throes of the disease, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham psychologist.
“College is a drastic change in a young person’s life,” says Mary Boggiano, Ph.D., a UAB psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. “The stress and new freedom of eating on their own can put some at risk for eating disorders. Students and parents need to know that there are nutrition and counseling resources on campus.”
While eating disorders are most often associated with women, more than 1 million men in the United States have anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, and almost as many men as women are binge-eaters.
“It is difficult for anyone to admit they have an eating disorder, but it is even more so for guys,” Boggiano says. “Many perceive it as a female disease, and that is not the case. About 40 percent of those with binge-eating disorders are male.”
More than 24 million Americans of all races and ages suffer from eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental disease. Boggiano says genetics play a significant role, and people whose parents suffer from anxiety, depression or substance abuse are at risk. Environmental factors, such as concerns about body image, can lead to behaviors like restrictive dieting, which, in turn fuel the disease.
Boggiano encourages parents to discuss things positively and never use the word “diet.” Students are inundated with unhealthy food options, so focus on ways to eat healthy both on and off campus. Better food means better health and better cognitive performance in the classroom.
Currently, the American Psychiatric Association recognizes two eating disorders: anorexia nervosa (self-starvation) and bulimia nervosa (binge-eating followed by purging). Boggiano, associate professor in the UAB Department of Psychology, is part of a group of eating disorder experts nationally that is advocating for the APA to recognize binge-eating disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, scheduled to be released in May 2013, with the hope that insurance will cover treatment.
She says the biggest mistake in recovery is trying to overcome the disease alone. Treatment is available, but it is not an overnight solution. It can take anywhere from five years to a lifetime to beat an eating disorder; 20 percent never beat it and die from complications related to the disease.
“If you suspect that a friend has an eating disorder you should bring it up with that person by sharing what you have observed to make you suspicious,” says Boggiano. “Most people want help but are afraid to ask. Secrecy enables; silence kills.”
Some common warning signs for eating disorders are:
- Talking about body image in a negative way
- Eating little or skipping meals
- Making excuses for not eating
- Noticeable weight-loss or frequent weight fluctuations
- Moodiness, irritability and increased isolation
Show compassion when you confront someone with a suspected eating disorder, Boggiano says. “The key question to start with is, ‘Are you concerned about your body weight or shape?’”
If they are unwilling to seek help and the problem persists, give them an ultimatum, “You need to tell them they must move out or the friendship ends unless they seek treatment,” says Boggiano. “This may seem harsh but it lets them know you love them too much to sit around and watch them die.”