Stress of freshman year can trigger eating disorders for some young people

While the start of college is a positive, momentous event for many young people, it also can be an episode that pushes some into a dangerous battle with eating disorders, says University of Alabama at Birmingham Associate Professor of Psychology Mary Boggiano, Ph.D., who fought her own battle against bulimia as a college student.

Stress can trigger an eating disorder, and for the college student who is away from home for the first time, the stress of moving into a totally different environment and meeting new people can make them more susceptible to developing an eating disorder, says Boggiano. Even new positive events are processed by the brain as stressful, she says.

"A lot of students have heard about the 'freshman 15,'" says Boggiano. "To keep from gaining weight, some students engage in risky behaviors such as excessive dieting or purging food. In many cases, people learn about the risky behaviors from others students in their dorm or over the Internet, so that obsession about weight can become infectious."

Boggiano says the common signs of an eating disorder include:

A preoccupation with calculating calories, fat grams and carbohydrate grams A need to weigh oneself more than once a day Allowing the numbers on the scale to determine mood Exercising, skipping meals or purging after overeating Exercising to burn calories rather than for health or for fun An inability to stop eating once eating begins Eating in secret Feeling guilty, ashamed or disgusted after overeating Basing self-worth on looks or weight Worrying continuously about weight and body shape Abusing diet pills or laxatives

Eating disorders can lead to long-term health problems, and even death.

For any young people who suspect they might be developing an eating disorder, Boggiano encourages them to seek help at free campus counseling centers, through a pastor or family doctor or through programs like Overeaters Anonymous.

"Whatever you do, don't try to take care of it by yourself," says Boggiano. "It will only get worse."

Boggiano, who studies the psychobiology of eating disorders and obesity, knows this from personal experience as a young adult.

"My problems with bulimia nervosa actually began during my senior year in high school," she says. "I was a top student, salutatorian of my class. But, I became obsessed with my weight and the shape of my body. I started starving myself, but this led to binge eating and eventually vomiting after the binges, several times a day, and eventually I began abusing laxatives. When I started college, the disorder got worse."

The two most common forms of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, when a person stops eating or eats very little to control their weight, and bulimia nervosa, when a person vomits or uses laxatives to get rid of the food they have eaten to prevent weight gain. Both types of eating disorders can eventually lead to serious health problems and even death.

Another form of eating disorder, binge eating disorders (or BED), is when an individual eats unusually large amounts of food, uncontrollably, in a short period of time until they are uncomfortable but do not purge or compensate afterward.

"This often leads to weight gain, which is upsetting to them," says Boggiano, "yet to overcome the distress, they turn to food. It's a vicious cycle." She is currently exploring brain markers of stress-induced binge-eating and the chemistry behind the action of high-fat and sugar foods to trigger relapses back to binge eating and obesity.