Are you, or is someone you know, preoccupied with dieting, weight control, or body size? Do you fast or significantly restrict your diet in order to lose weight quickly or to avoid gaining weight? Do you feel “fat” even though others reassure you that you are of normal weight and size, or even “skinny”? Have you ever taken a laxative or made yourself vomit after a meal in order to avoid weight gain? These behaviors are some of the most common and observable symptoms associated with eating disorders. Eating disorders are emotional disorders in which the individual maintains unhealthy attitudes and behaviors toward food, eating, and body image. Eating disorders include compulsive overeating, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia nervosa.
Individuals with anorexia nervosa typically display a noticeable weight loss, during and following periods of severe restriction in their food intake. They have an extreme fear of gaining weight or becoming “fat”, and may have very distorted body images, believing themselves to be overweight when they appear thin or even emaciated to friends and family. Despite their low food intake, they may be very active and energetic, often protesting their health and vitality. They may exercise excessively, in an effort to maintain and speed weight loss. Physical symptoms that may accompany anorexia include dry skin, dry hair and/or hair loss, and cessation of regular menstrual periods, as body fat decreases.
Individuals with bulimia nervosa typically engage in cycles of bingeing and purging. Bingeing generally involves episodes of significantly increased food intake over a short period of time. Purging involves use of laxatives, diuretics, and/or self-induced vomiting after binges or even following regular meals or snacks, in an effort to avoid weight gain. Bulimics also show an overconcern and preoccupation with weight control and body shape and size, although they may or may not demonstrate a significant weight loss. Both anorexics and bulimics may weigh themselves compulsively.
Compulsive overeaters are also preoccupied with food and may feel powerless to control their eating. They may, but do not necessarily, display a weight gain or obesity. Compulsive overeaters may center their activities around eating, food may obsessively occupy their thoughts, they may eat excessively whether or not they are hungry, they may eat in response to sadness, distress or other “negative” emotions, and they may eat or binge secretly or when alone.
Our culture and the media often place an overemphasis on thinness and personal appearance, without appropriate regard for genuine health, nutrition, or fitness. Therefore, many people, particularly young women, tend to be concerned with weight control and being slim. While not everyone who watches his/her weight, exercises regularly, or occasionally overeats necessarily has an eating disorder, eating disorders are potentially quite serious and should never be ignored. The behaviors associated with eating disorders can lead to serious health problems and in extreme cases, may even cause death. Detection and treatment is often further complicated by the fact that individuals with the disorders often deny the problem and/or attempt to conceal their symptoms.
Diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders should be undertaken by a mental health professional, in conjunction with a physician and a nutritionist. The counseling center is staffed by licensed clinical psychologists who understand the difficulties associated with eating disorders and who can help you, or a friend, assess the situation. Confidential assessment and short-term individual counseling are available at no cost to all full-time, degree-seeking UMW students. For more information, please call the Talley Center for Counseling Services at 540-654-1053 or stop by Monday through Friday.