The Confines of Calories
by Lindsay Howard
There are 200 calories in a cup of brown rice. About 100 calories in a regular sized banana. 80 in an apple. 200 in a chicken breast. 100 in a piece of whole wheat toast. These numbers haunt college women diagnosed (or undiagnosed) with eating disorders (EDs). EDs are frequently found on college campuses, particularly among women. By the ripe age of 18-21, a surprisingly large number of women are diagnosed with a full blown eating disorder. The topic is often considered taboo and pushed under the table. There is a common misconception that EDs are always a direct effect of vanity, which could not be further from the truth. In order to truly help and detect EDs among college women, they must first be understood.
Entering college begins a time of newness and intense pressure. Young women are thrown into a society full of beautiful, seemingly perfect girls to compare themselves to, boys who they desperately want to impress, a need for a perfect 4.0 GPA, and a great deal of pressure to become involved in every club on campus. They are no longer under the watchful eye of their parents and no longer have home cooked meals available. All of these individual pressures manage to pile on top of each other, creating an overwhelming sense of stress that is seemingly impossible to control. Although we cannot control most things in life, we can control what goes into our bodies. This need for control can manifest itself in the form of extreme dieting and excessive working out. Slowly, without realizing it, many college women begin to develop disordered eating.
Disordered eating is defined by the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC) as “disturbed and unhealthy eating patterns that can include restrictive eating, compulsive eating, or skipping meals.” It is often characterized by cutting out entire food groups (carbs, sugars, etc.) and excessive exercise. What begins as a healthy lifestyle turns into disordered eating patterns. If these symptoms go without treatment, they have an extreme potential to turn into a full-blown eating disorder such as anorexia (depriving the body of food) or bulimia (binging and purging).
With the internal and external pressures of college, comparison among peers, and constant media at their fingertips, college women feel as if they are nowhere near as good as everyone else. A 2005 study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health took to a large, midwestern public university to gain some tangible numbers on the prevalence of eating disorders on college campuses. They randomly selected 5,021 students comprised of undergraduate and graduate, male and female, and all races to survey. A 5 item questionnaire was sent out that included questions measuring mental and emotional health, particularly pertaining to eating disorders and disordered eating. Of those selected, 2,822 students responded. Two years later, those same students were contacted again for a follow up survey, which 753 completed. 13.8% of undergraduate females and 9.3% of graduate females surveyed tested positive for eating disorders. Of the questions asked in the survey, the two most commonly endorsed questions among the responses were “Do you believe yourself to be fat when others say you are thin?” and “Do you worry you have lost control over how much you eat?” These are questions that I am afraid ring true to far more women than just the ones who participated in this research.
Those who tested positive for EDs typically tested positive for other mental health related issues, such as anxiety and depression. Of those positive responses, only 48% claimed they needed help, the remaining 52% citing their reasons as “I do not have a need,” “Stress is normal in college,” “The problem will get better by itself,” or “I do not have time.” These responses are simply staggering, illustrating the sad fact that eating disorders are not seen as a problem in modern society. When even acknowledged as a problem, it is a very miniscule one. Eating disorders are simply not perceived as an urgent issue, despite the extremely harmful effects they pose. People think of EDs as a crazy source of achieving some level of perfection or “beauty”, completely ignoring the fact that eating disorders are a mental disorder. The majority of college women with EDs go completely undiagnosed. Eating disorders take everything from their host. Sufferers don’t go out to dinner due to the all-consuming idea of what is in the food they are consuming or how many calories may be in a dish. They work out until they can hardly move anymore. Food and exercise are no longer ways to relax and feel good about themselves, but an unhealthy obsession. The pressures and lack of control in college life seem to be dimmed when the only thought is food and exercise. Over the past 13 years the total number of eating disorders increased 23-32% among females.
Many college campuses are seriously lacking in awareness of eating disorders and disordered eating. There are few resources available other than an occasional pamphlet in a student health center. It is time college women wake up and fight for our sisters held by the confines of calories. It is time we become educated on what eating disorders are and the importance of diagnosis and treatment. Our health is important. Our bodies are the vessel for which we do everything. With the proper education on eating disorders and a greater knowledge on the proper way to exercise and fuel their body well, college women can band together to stop crash dieting and eating disorders and begin to live healthy, balanced, and fulfilling lives. Truth + Dare is here to banish the stigma against eating disorders, will you join us?
If you feel as if you or a friend are suffering from an eating disorder, please reach out to someone.
National Eating Disorders Association: 1-800-931-2237
Substance Abuse and mental Health Services Administration: 800-622-4357
National Alliance on Mental Illness: 800-950-6264
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders: 630-577-1330