Do not underestimate the risks of eating disorders, experts say

Monday, Feb. 25 marked the start of the National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) week. This week is meant to bring awareness to this mental illness and educate those who may not know much about the variety of eating disorders that exist in our communities. At its core, an eating disorder is a disordered relationship with food as an outward projection of some inner turmoil. That inner turmoil could be negative body image, low self-esteem, anxiety or depression, the desire to be more athletically capable, or even food addiction. There’s definitely a spectrum of eating disorders, ranging from the most restrictive diets to the most compulsive binge-eating.

The best-known eating disorder is anorexia nervosa, where the sufferer refuses to eat adequate portions of food to properly fuel their body. However, anorexia nervosa is certainly not the only type of eating disorder out there. There is also bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating disorder. Bulimia is characterized by periods of binge-eating and purging, which can range from self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, or even excessive exercise in order to “purge” oneself from the calories they consumed. Orthorexia is characterized by taking healthy eating to a whole new level, obsessing over healthy foods to the point that the obsession disrupts normal eating patterns. Sufferers tend to make rules about everything they eat, what time they eat, and refusing to eat things they deem “unhealthy.”

Binge eating disorder is similar to bulimia where the person consumes excessive amounts of food in one sitting, but differs in the fact that this person does not do anything to “purge” their binge. This disorder often accompanies other mental illnesses, such as depression. It is the one eating disorder that causes weight gain rather than loss. It is for this reason that this disorder has a different mental effect on the sufferer. Whereas the other disorders are based upon body image and a disordered relationship with food, binge eating disorder is based solely upon a disordered relationship with food. The individual looks for something in food that they think they can’t get anywhere else. Maybe it’s a way to cope with loneliness, or a way to deal with tragedy in their life. Sometimes, it’s a way to let go. If a person expects perfection of him or herself in all they do, something has to give way. Depending on what that person expects of themselves, sometimes food is that weak link that gives out.

“Sometimes students who have parents or adult mentors who have their own issues with body image can increase the likelihood of having one’s own distorted idea of the perfect body,” Loras counselor Tricia Borelli said about eating disorders in general. “Some college students struggle with anxiety, depression, or just low self-esteem which can have a direct impact on eating habits and behaviors.”

It’s important to note that not only women struggle with this mental illness. Men are more rarely associated with disordered eating, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also suffer from eating disorders.

“I’m not sure how prevalent eating disorders are on campus,” Borelli continued, “but I do see a good portion of female students and some male students who struggle with disordered body image and disordered eating. Male and female athletes who feel they need to maintain a certain weight to perform well are at risk. Athletes tend to use exercise, as opposed to binging and purging, dieting, and laxatives to control their weight. Some symptoms may not be subclinical but are definitely problematic.”

Eating disorders can certainly wreak havoc in the athletic world. The female athlete triad is the most commonly seen result of disordered eating in female athletes, who can use their menstrual cycle as a measure of whole-body health.

“The female athlete triad involves three things: disordered eating, an energy imbalance, decreased bone mineral density, and menstrual cycle dysfunction,” said Dr. Elaina Biechler, kinesiology professor and avid triathlete at Loras. “Menstrual dysfunction could include the complete loss of menstrual cycle, or irregular menstrual cycles. This is a fairly common phenomenon that affects many female athletes.” It is important to keep in mind that there are definitely some long-term consequences associated with lacking your normal cycle.

“It can lead to infertility later in life, and it also negatively affects bone health,” Dr. Biechler said. “Essentially, when you’re not eating enough, this causes the body to suppress a hormone known as estrogen. A lack of estrogen causes you to decrease menstrual regularity and also decrease the storage of calcium in your bones. This can lead to an increased risk of bone injury, and osteoporosis later in life.”

If you or someone you know seems to have the symptoms of the female athlete triad, the best way to regain healthiness is to increase calorie consumption to match energy expenditure and increase consumption of foods high in calcium.

“It can happen to anyone,” Biechler continued. “Women who are highly competitive, perfectionistic, and have a strong desire to be successful are at a high risk.”

Many athletes—particularly distance runners, gymnasts, dancers, competitive divers, or any sport where being small is an advantage–fall into the trap of believing the relationship between mass and energy can be applied to their athletic performance. Greater mass loss equals greater energy output, right? Wrong. Your best athletic performance will occur at a healthy weight – your body’s natural weight, whatever that may be. Many athletes fall into this trap.

“Working with a nutritionist or dietitian can be helpful,” Borelli said. “Talking with a coach or AT if you are involved in a sport can be key to maintaining a good weight and body image.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, it is important to reach out or offer help. Our Loras counseling center is a resource that is available to all students. One can also seek advice from coaches or dietitians for additional guidance.

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Audrey Miller is a writer for The Lorian.

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