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A New Approach to Eating Disorders

Student groups, admins collaborate to educate and treat affected students

07-1059-027FitRec aly.jpg

Officials at the Fitness and Recreation Center are working with University administrators and student groups to make students with eating and exercise disorders aware of on-campus resources. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Eating disorders have long been present in the college-age population — anorexia affects an estimated .5 percent of adolescent females and bulimia between 1 and 5 percent. A 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics study found an increasingly “unhealthy emphasis on diet and weight loss among children and adolescents” in the previous decade. Students studying nutrition at BU say some of their peers seem overly concerned about eating and food, which can stem from things ranging from anxiety about leaving home for the first time to the prevalence of eating as a social activity at college.

“College can be an amazing environment, and an amazingly stressful environment,” says Melissa Stone (CAS’08), the founder of Helping Hands, an eating-disorders resource and education group for students. “Eating disorders are definitely common in high school, too, but there’s a much bigger support system there. At college, it’s really easy to lose structure.”

This year, Helping Hands is collaborating with Sargent College and other organizations on campus to help make students more aware of the resources available for people affected by eating disorders and to encourage them to seek help. Helping Hands volunteers will be in the George Sherman Union all week with information about anorexia and bulimia, and they will be selling eating-disorder-awareness bracelets to help raise funds for the National Eating Disorders Association. On Wednesday, February 27, at 7 p.m. students are invited to join a nutritionist, a psychologist, a bulimia specialist, and a student recovering from an eating disorder for a panel discussion in the Photonics Center. The event is cosponsored by Sargent College and BU’s Nutrition Club.

The purpose, Stone says, is to let students know about the resources on campus, which include evaluations at Student Health Services (SHS), nutrition counseling through Sargent College, and treatment programs through BU’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. But the event’s organizers also hope that more discussion will destigmatize eating disorders and highlight the real challenges that people suffering from anorexia and bulimia face.

“A lot of people don’t understand — you know, asking, why don’t you just eat?” Stone says. “They don’t understand that it’s a disease like any other.”

The University is taking more proactive steps to identify and treat students with eating and exercise disorders, particularly since the Fitness and Recreation Center opened in April 2005. Previously, students given to frequent or obsessive exercise often worked out off campus, says Warin Dexter, executive director of the department of physical education, recreation, and dance. When the Commonwealth Avenue center opened, FitRec staffers suddenly became aware that there were students who spent hours every day working out on the cardio machines. “These kids come with these issues,” says Dexter. “But this has become so much more pronounced now. We’ve had some real serious cases here at the University.”

In the past three years, he estimates, four or five students have had their FitRec privileges suspended or revoked because of concerns about their health. Since then, FitRec has started collaborating with Sargent, Student Health Services, the University Service Center, and the athletics department to establish policy guidelines for identifying and treating students with eating disorders — a process involving identification by FitRec staff, evaluations from SHS, and then a range of treatment options, including nutritional counseling and monitored workouts.

The primary difficulty lies in the nature of disordered eating, according to Rosemary Pomponio, an SHS staff physician. “It is considered to be a major psychological disorder,” says Pomponio, who sees approximately 10 students in the clinic each year and is certain that there are many more undiagnosed cases on campus. “Often, students don’t respond to our concerns about their health,” she says, “because they don’t think they have a health problem. They’re unaware of how they look and what they’re doing to their own bodies. It’s very frustrating for a medical professional.” Universities also have a special set of obstacles, since most students are adults by law and are not obligated to obtain their medical care through Student Health Services. “You can’t force somebody to come in for treatment unless they are so obviously ill that the dean’s office will step in and exert academic pressure,” Pomponio notes.

The collaboration among subsets of BU’s student affairs divisions is intended to offset these obstacles. By keeping open lines of communication with staffers who work with students in all facets of their lives — in the classroom, in the gym, in the dorms, and in the dining halls — they’re able to better assess how severe a student’s health needs are and to figure out the best course of action when outside help becomes critical. “We don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks because everybody wasn’t as aware as they could be,” says Denise Mooney, the director of the University Service Center.

In addition, new efforts are under way to help students educate themselves about eating right — and to steer them away from fad diets and unhealthy habits. Sargent College’s nutrition classes, offered at FitRec since 2005, expanded last fall to include free nutritional assessment services to any interested student, with an additional series of free strategy sessions for those judged to be in the initial stages of risky behavior. “Sometimes if a student has progressed too far, you can’t reach them,” says Stacey Zawacki, the director of Sargent’s Nutrition and Fitness Center. “We have been able to work with students before they get to that point.”

Jessica Ullian can be reached at jullian@bu.edu.


15 Comments on A New Approach to Eating Disorders

  • Aida M. Garcia on 02.25.2008 at 10:10 am

    My daugther is a fressman at BU. Althought I suspected that she has anorexia since two years ago, this Christmas she asked me to read a papel she wrote for a class and in it she confessed her condition of anorexia and the reasons why she began to omit food. It was too hard for me. In september when I went to BU with her I tried to find information and support, but she dennied to go any place. Although she has’nt lost weight, since she left home, I’m very concern and want to find treatment in BU for her. She is willing to receive treatment now. Last week she went to a nutritional evaluation in BU and pays for it. I don’t know the process, how can I get more information and direct her to the professionals that can support her?

  • Anonymous on 02.25.2008 at 10:36 am

    this is really really great. im so glad more is being done to help people.

  • Anonymous on 02.25.2008 at 11:32 am

    Maybe the reason there’s been such an emphasis on dieting and weight-loss in children is because of the recent “hip” disease…obesity. I guarantee there’s going to be an increase in eating disorders and psychological issues related to body image and food in the next 10 to 20 years because of how much childhood obesity is being discussed in the news. Parents with obese children are being threatened with losing their children, obese people have been denied jobs, the right to adopt…it’s becoming a population of second class citizens. No wonder children are being put on diets and have become obsessed with weight.

  • Anonymous on 02.25.2008 at 1:27 pm

    Exercise addiction

    Is there a difference between exercise addiction and exercise bulimia? And how can you tell if you’re addicted or not?

  • jullian on 02.25.2008 at 1:30 pm

    BU resources

    For information about counseling and treatment programs please contact Stacey Zawacki at 617-358-5065.

  • Margaret Ross Link on 02.25.2008 at 6:59 pm

    Eating Disorders article

    Jessica Ullian–You did a really great job on this article. Thank you so much for promoting awareness of the illnesses and the resources available.

    I will be in touch with Melissa Stone, too, to thank her again for the work Helping Hands is doing.

    all congratulations on an excellent article. Please let me know if you would like me to respond to any of the questions that come in.

    Margaret Ross
    Director, Behavioral Medicine

  • BU Law Student on 02.25.2008 at 10:21 pm


    BU may have an interest in terminating the FitRec privileges of students that are seen as exercising excessively. However, students pay for the privilege of using the FitRec center as part of the tuition. Are these students being refunded that portion of their tuition? For that matter, are morbidly obese students that overindulge at dining halls going to be denied eating privileges? Obesity is a much more pervasive problem. Are universities now expected to dictate student eating habits? Does BU plan to deny library privileges to students that study excessively because sleep deprivation adversely affects their health? If so, we might as well close the law school now.
    I understand the rationale behind the decision to deny FitRec privileges, but I believe that is is seriously misguided. Students intent on exercising, eating, or studying excessively will do so regardless of availability of BU facilities. Despite that, what gives a university the right to pass judgment on an adult student who pays for the privilege of attending the school?

  • Anonymous on 02.26.2008 at 12:13 am


    Its really great to see BU involved in this known and very serious health concern. As an affected student with close friends and peers with eating disorders, I am happy that the University is recognizing anorexia and bulimia as a serious issue since I know it affects many female students of all ages and degrees of severity. As a senior, this is the first step I have seen BU taking in initiating students to take part and I hope there will be more in the future.

  • Anonymous on 02.26.2008 at 7:29 pm

    What room is it in tomorrow?

    I noticed that it didn’t say what room it’s in and I can’t seem to find any information on the BU site.

  • jullian on 02.27.2008 at 9:32 am

    Room 206 at Photonics

  • Anonymous on 02.27.2008 at 5:29 pm

    Treatment for Eating Disorders is available at the BU Psychological Services Center for Boston University students, faculty and staff. The web site is http://www.bu.edu/psc and the phone number is (617) 358-4290.

    Another treatment option is the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD) at BU. The website for CARD is http://www.bu.edu/anxiety and the phone number is (617) 353-9610.

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2008 at 12:10 pm

    For eating disorder treatment resources try

    Children’s Hospital Boston is also a great resource.
    They have an eating disorders program and have relationships with many providers in the community as well.
    Their website: http://www.youngwomenshealth.org

    Good luck!

  • gerry on 07.08.2008 at 2:10 pm

    There is definitely serious matter concerning eating disorders among young people specially young girls. We cannot ignore this aspect forever and pretend trends are normal, I definitely think we need more direct measures for this.
    Eating Disorder treatment

  • eatingdisordertreatment on 04.24.2009 at 12:30 pm

    Diet Ads

    Unfortunately, marketers know how obsessed young women are with weight issues. So they are going to target them and selling them “hope”. Hope that the next new miracle diet plan or pill is going to be the “one” that works. Unfortunate as well is the fact that women buy into the myth that they are overweight, no matter what size they are. The best way to deal with them is to refuse to buy weight loss products and live a happy life.

  • Alice Burke on 03.23.2010 at 12:40 pm

    Co-occuring disorders

    I’ve had experience with an eating disorder myself. I’ve suffered from anorexia and bulimia since I was 8 years old. I am just one example of many children that suffer with eating disorders today. My younger sister is also another case. As it progressed, my eating disorder turned me to other self-destructive behaviors like drugs and alcohol. I eventually landed myself in a drug rehab.

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