How to Help Prevent Eating Disorders
Eating Disorders & the College Experience
College can be a very stressful and overwhelming time for students. They’re dealing with all sorts of pressures: trying to fit in, trying to make friends, trying to get good grades, trying to do it right. Sometimes, students turn to unhealthy ways of managing their stress. One of these ways can be developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
Disordered eating occurs when a person’s attitudes, thoughts, and feelings about weight and body image lead to rigid eating and exercise behaviors that may become dangerous to their health and happiness. Some examples include counting calories, criticizing one’s appearance, skipping meals and frequent exercising. More serious behaviors include eating very large amounts of food when not hungry, not allowing oneself to eat for long periods of time, or consuming much less than what the body needs.
In 2006, the National Eating Disorders Association conducted a study across college campuses to gain more information about the prevalence of disordered eating behavior. Their results included the following:
- 20% of the participants believed that they were currently struggling with or had struggled with an eating disorder.
- 75% of those participants did not seek treatment.
- 57% identified cultural pressures to be thin as a cause of the eating disorder.
- Approximately 42% identified life stress in general as cause of the eating disorder.
Certainly eating disorders do not come from stress alone. They are complex and often stem from a variety of psychological, interpersonal, social, behavioral, and emotional factors, and require professional help to treat. However, there are many things you can do as parents and caregivers to discourage their development.
How You Can Help
Don’t underestimate the power of the media. Body image and eating concerns have been linked to media images that contribute to certain cultural definitions of attraction and beauty, such as the “thin” ideal. These images send the message that if you have a certain type of body, you will have success, happiness, and love. You can help by challenging these ideas — being thinner does not mean one is healthy or happy!
Remind your student that people come in all shapes and sizes and that no one body shape or body size is a healthy one or the right one for everybody.
Educate yourself about some of the consequences of dieting:
- Dieting is not very effective. 95% of dieters gain weight back within one to five years.
- Dieting can force one’s metabolism to slow down (in order to conserve energy), and can cause one to miss important nutrients (such as calcium). • Physical consequences can include: loss of muscular strength, thinning hair, cold temperature, fainting, headaches, and dehydration.
- A student’s mind can be impacted by dieting as well, including slowed reaction time, feelings of depression and low self-esteem, and difficulty concentrating.
- Dieting can lead to an eating disorder through constant focus about body shape, diet, and weight.
Help your student build a positive body image. Challenge them when you hear comments such as, “I’m too fat,” or “I can’t eat that,” or “I have to bulk up.” Remind them of their strengths, and help them appreciate all that their body can do — walking, thinking, smiling, relaxing.
Your students are paying more attention to what you say and what you do than you think they are. Be a model of healthy self-esteem and positive body image. Talk about yourself with respect and appreciation for inner and outer qualities. Resist the pressure to judge yourself and others based on weight, shape, or size.
Don’t judge food. There are no “bad” or “good” foods, so encourage your student to eat a variety of foods. While people eat for many different reasons, food can only solve one problem: hunger. Encourage eating when your student is hungry and stopping when full.
Help your student deal with stress in healthy ways. Suggest that they get adequate rest, exercise moderately, and eat a balance of foods. Encourage them to have fun, spend time with friends, and to laugh.
Remind your student that being active is a lot more fun when they find something they like to do. Encourage him or her to develop interests and hobbies outside of the classroom. Feeling good about what they’re doing will help them to feel good about themselves.
Encourage your student to surround themselves with positive people. It will help them build self-confidence and self-esteem if they are around others who are supportive and like them as they naturally are.
Talk to your student. Be available to listen to their concerns. Praise them. Ask about all areas of their lives—friends, school, interests, etc. Don’t forget how important you are to them and that your opinions matter.
Disordered eating and body image concerns can affect anyone. While commonly thought of as mostly present in Euro-American girls and adolescents, disordered eating is present in all cultural groups, men included. If you are concerned about your student’s relationship with food or their bodies, encourage them to seek help.
Feliza Guidero, PsyD, (former Intern at the Counseling and Testing Center)