BU Today

Health & Wellness

Curbing Eating Disorders, Not Appetite

Eating disorders are common on college campuses. Events this week will help educate students about the dangers of disordered eating.

Factors contributing to eating disorders among college students include eating in dining halls with limited food choices, fears about gaining the freshman 15, social freedom, and academic stress. Age and environment also make the college population particularly vulnerable, says Paula Quatromoni, an assistant professor of nutrition at Sargent College and advisor to BU’s Nutrition Club. To spread the message about students’ susceptibility to eating disorders, the club is planning three events on campus during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which runs from February 26 to March 3.

“Close living situations and the unique social structure of college life can contribute to the contagious nature of eating disorders, where unhealthy dieting practices are modeled, learned, and even admired by friends,” Quatromoni says. “At the same time, maintaining secrecy and hiding an eating disorder may be much easier at college than in a family home with daily parental supervision.” 

People who suffer from eating disorders often have little self-confidence and compare themselves to others, according to Quatromoni, and the pressure to be thin is very strong.

“Most people blame the environment, the media, or the anti-obesity prejudice, but a lot of what I see is internally driven,” she says. “People with eating disorders are highly self-critical, and they judge and evaluate themselves harshly. Their thoughts about themselves are chronically negative, rarely positive or supportive.”

Debbie Chin (COM’07), vice president of the Nutrition Club, says that the pressure to be thin comes in large part from media outlets such as celebrity magazines and from fashion designers who use extremely thin models in shows and advertisements. She also says pressure from peers and from family can play a role in eating disorders.

“At college we live and interact with peers on a more frequent basis, making us extra aware of body images,” says Chin. “Individuals react to these pressures in different ways, but the pressure to be thin is very prevalent in contemporary society.”

Nationally, diagnosed eating disorders have risen dramatically over the past few decades. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, about 10 million women and about a million men suffer from such disorders as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Millions more struggle daily with binge-eating disorders.

“Prevalence rates are skyrocketing,” Quatromoni says. “There has been a tripling in the incidence of bulimia alone among women ages 10 to 39 in just five years, and rates are also rising among men.”

Despite these statistics, only a small percentage of those affected get adequate treatment. “Research dollars dedicated to improving our understanding and treatment of eating disorders are woefully insufficient,” says Quatromoni. “People with eating disorders often suffer in silence for many years because of the stigma associated with them and because eating disorders are so poorly understood. What starts as an innocent and well-intentioned diet can propel an individual into a lifetime of emotional and physical pain.” 

Eating disorders can be treated through education, intervention, proper therapy, and ongoing support. “There is a clear message of hope that needs to be spread. People affected by eating disorders need information and insight to recognize the warning signs,” says Quatramoni. “They need to know that they are not alone and that help is available. We need to break down barriers to treatment.”

Today a panel of speakers, including a family therapist, a sports psychologist, and a nutritionist, will discuss various aspects of eating disorders; another speaker will discuss her personal struggle with the issue. The lecture will be held at in SAR Room 101 at 6:30 p.m.

From Saturday, February 24, to Sunday, March 4, a jeans donation drive will remind students to be comfortable with their own genes. This event is aimed at persuading students to think twice about trying to change their bodies to fit fashion trends and unattainable beauty standards. Donation boxes will be available in the main residence halls, and all the jeans collected will go to charity.

On Friday, March 2, a diet-free day, called Fearless Friday, will encourage students to forgo the dieting constraints they often place on themselves for beauty.

Meghan Noé can be reached at mdorney@bu.edu.