Some students come to college already using the way they eat as a means to cope with difficult feelings. Some develop eating disorders during their college years as a way to cope with the many stressors they are faced with in everyday life.

A prominent speaker in this area referred to eating disorders as the "feeling disorders" (Alicia Quintano, personal communication, May, 1997). There are many reasons why someone might develop an eating disorder, including difficulties with self-esteem, family problems, and issues related to body image.

Whatever the reasons behind them, bulimia, anorexia, and compulsive overeating, and other eating disorders that don't fit these categories, are distressing to live with. People who binge, purge, compulsively overeat, undereat or starve themselves, compulsively exercise, find themselves thinking obsessively about food, their body size and shape, exercising, and other related issues, can feel miserable. The eating disordered behavior may bring a sense of shame and guilt, and often carries with it a tendency toward secrecy and isolation.

Some people with eating disorders may feel quite depressed or anxious, have social problems related (or unrelated) to hiding a sense of true self from others, and find that feelings, thoughts, and behaviors related to the eating disorder interfere with academic performance and life at college, in general.

Eating disorders are also dangerous. A person starving the body may lose muscle, including heart muscle. Women may stop menstruating when underweight, which might lead to problems in reproductive health and bone density.

Purging can upset the body’s electrolyte balance, causing potentially serious heart problems, loss of tooth enamel, or serious intestinal problems. Not getting the nutrients necessary for good health, a student may develop dry skin and hair, experience hair loss, have brittle nails, and lack sufficient energy to function effectively in and outside of school.

Eating disorders may also reflect underlying depression and anxiety; eating disordered behaviors often in themselves lead to anxiety and depression.

Treatment for eating disorders varies according to the severity of the problem and other personal and circumstantial factors. Initial and ongoing assessment of a person’s physical and psychological health is key. Many students with eating disorders should be examined by a physician for an assessment of their overall health. This is especially important because many of the potential health problems associated with eating disorders cannot be seen from the outside.

A student may appear to be of average weight and look healthy, but still have health problems. Counseling, individual or group, and sometimes both, is very effective in the long-term treatment of eating disorders. Most students are able to maintain most of their usual activities while engaging in the healing process. In some instances, however, it can be helpful to take some time off from school for this.

Counseling Center staff is well trained in short-term individual counseling for students with eating disorders. We are able to make appropriate assessments and referrals for further treatment where appropriate. A counselor can help a student decide on the best course of treatment to their individual needs.

Q: I might want to begin counseling, but I’m afraid of what could happen. Will my counselor make me give up my eating disorder?

A: No. Except in an instance where a student appears to be at grave and immediate physical danger, the counselor’s goal for the student should not be that she or he give up the eating disordered behavior. More usual goals for counseling, which client and counselor would discuss and agree on, would be to get in touch with thoughts and feelings related to behaviors, come to understand the meaning of the eating disorder, increase self-awareness in general, enhance stress management and overall effectiveness in life satisfaction, and increase the range of coping strategies the student has to drawn on in challenging times. Control over the student’s behavior, related or unrelated to the eating disorder, rests with the student.

Q: What if I or someone I care about has a related problem that doesn’t seem like an eating disorder?

A: Not all eating problems are eating disorders. Many people in our culture struggle with issues related to eating and body image but don’t develop eating disorders. See the page, “Eating Concerns," for more information.

Q: How do help a friend or family member with an eating disorder? 

A: Concern for a friend or family member with an eating disorder can be a very worrying and complicated issue. A good place to start is with some guidelines to clarify your concerns and a framework from which you can best express these, as well as to get some help and support for yourself. We also invite you to call the Counseling Center to speak to one of the staff about your concerns.

For additional information and resources about eating disorders:

The Emily Program

Cleveland Clinic