Eating disorders offer false sense of control

Eating disorders. They’re something you joke about, right? Like Derek and Hansel in Zoolander, when Matilda breaks the news about her recovery from bulimia. But she’s right: An eating disorder is a disease. And, in today’s America, an increasingly prevalent one. The National Eating Disorders Association (www.edap.org) estimates almost 10 million Americans currently suffer from some kind of eating disorder — about three percent of the population.

At our age, the percentage is much higher, since eating disorders occur most commonly between the ages of 13 and 25, according to Carnegie Mellon’s Counseling and Psychological Services website. The ratio of women to men afflicted is 9:1. One-half percent of college-aged women have anorexia nervosa, five percent suffer from bulimia, and up to 40 percent of those who are obese may be binge eaters.

Scary, right? It gets worse. Chief complaint of all boyfriends: Girls seeking assurance by asking if they look fat. Sure, it’s clichéd, but true; most women and many men are needlessly unhappy with their bodies. The fact is that eating disorders come in varying degrees and many forms. A person can have an emotional obsession while maintaining a healthy weight. Counseling Services provides a variety of educational brochures on the topic, all of which are also available online. They place eating issues on a continuum: with confidence about body shape and size and flexible eating at one end, then a preoccupation with eating and body shape and size, which can give way to distress about the topic and finally eating disorders.

The brochures say: “Eating disorders are emotional problems which manifest themselves through behavior related to food, weight, eating, and exercising. At the root of these symptoms are issues related to self-esteem, control, trust, and difficulty coping with life events.”
Symptoms to look out for in yourself and others include:

Behavioral: Restricting calorie or food to feel more in control, eating episodes where you feel out of control, feeling compelled to exercise to compensate for food eaten, self-induced vomiting, temporary fasting to compensate for food eaten, drug use to control eating or weight gain, rituals around food, frequently weighing yourself, and counting calories.

Emotional: Depressed mood, mood swings, irritability, guilt about eating, intense fear of fat, low self-esteem, eating when upset, emotional discomfort after eating, difficulty tolerating the feeling of being full, and shame about eating behaviors.

Psychological: Perfectionism, preoccupation with food, high need for structure, rigid eating schedule, alternating between being in control of eating and “letting go,” difficulty concentrating, and a fluctuating body image.

Social: Frequently eating alone, eating in secret, avoiding friends, avoiding situations where food is involved, strained relationships due to food related issues, and difficulty being assertive.

Physical: Amenorrhea (menstruation has stopped), throat problems, frequent weight fluctuations, significant weight loss or gain, swollen glands, hair loss, puffy cheeks, broken blood vessels under eyes, fainting or dizziness, fatigue, unexplained tooth decay, and the development of fine hairs all over your body.

Having an eating disorder can be detrimental to a person’s own emotional and physical health and, for that reason, can adversely affect all aspects of their life: school, relationships, work. It’s mind-boggling: Why would we do this to ourselves? What is it about food and our bodies and the way we look that is important enough for us to jeopardize so many other important aspects of our lives for them?

Eating disorders can be about looking really thin, or they can be about analyzing what you eat and micromanaging. It’s an important issue at Carnegie Mellon, where most are under a lot of pressure and many are perfectionists to begin with. When everything else seems out of control (classes, grades, etc.), eating is one “small” thing that can be constrained to prevent feeling powerless over your life.

The National Eating Disorder Association says some psychological factors that contribute to eating disorders can be low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy or lack of control in life, depression, anxiety, anger, or loneliness. Troubled family and personal relationships are among the interpersonal factors that can contribute to an eating problem, as are having difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, a history of being teased or ridiculed based on size and weight, or a history of physical or sexual abuse. Socially, we are all faced with cultural pressures that idealize thinness and create narrow, size-based definitions of beauty for men and women. For the most part, we, as a culture, superficially judge ourselves and others based on physical appearances.

So what do we do about it? Be attentive to your own needs, both emotional and physical; watch out for your friends; seek help if you need it (there’s no shame in that, it’s a courageous step); and try not to think about it. Probably the person who cares most about the way your body looks is you, because the rest of us are too busy worrying about ourselves. Eating should come naturally and be as enjoyable as it can be.