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Student Life
Life @ SC

When Eating Becomes a Problem  

By Andrea Schmitt
Eating too much, too little, too fast, or not at all… If it gets extreme, then it might be an eating disorder. Last week was the National Eating Disorder Association’s (NEDA) awareness week, so I will tackle this topic today.
Eating disorders are recognized illnesses listed in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual - version 5 (DSM-5) and diagnosed by a medical professional. Many of these disorders can have serious health problems that affect the body and mental functioning, possibly leading to death. The good news is that these psychological and physical illnesses are treatable. We need food as an energy source; if the intake is out of proportion, we can see and feel the consequences. Information is power, so here are the most common eating disorders.
Anorexia nervosa
This eating disorder is characterized by weight loss. For growing children or teenagers, it can also mean inadequate weight for their age. People who suffer from anorexia are not always underweight but mostly watch and restrict the types of food and the number of calories. This might include purging, vomiting, binge eating (eating a lot of food in a short time), and having a distorted body image. To counter their calorie intake, many people over-exercise.

Bulimia nervosa
Cycles of binge eating and actions to compensate for the previous behavior are characteristic of this disorder. The first part of the cycle includes eating inappropriately large amounts of food while being unable to stop and control this way of eating. The second part consists of self-induced vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise, or the misuse of laxatives to lessen the impact of the extensive calorie intake. The goal is to prevent weight gain.

Binge eating disorder
This is the most common disorder in the US, the “newest,” and was formally added to the DSM-5 in 2013. It is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often very rapidly, with a feeling of loss of control and discomfort. People with this illness do not necessarily use unhealthy compensatory behavior (like purging).

Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders (OSFED)
To include people who did not strictly fall into the categories of anorexia and/or bulimia, this category was developed. Individuals who scored high in eating disorder thoughts and behaviors tests are included in this category.
The term was coined in 1998 and is characterized by an obsession with healthy and proper eating. It is not officially recognized in the DSM-5 but belongs to a subcategory of the existing eating disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Wanting to eat healthily is not a problem in general, but being obsessed and fixated with it is.

As I mentioned, a medical professional will use the DSM-5 to make an assessment. If the evaluation is unclear, an interview can help investigate further because a serious eating disorder could still be present. An important indicator could be that food, eating, calories, and excessive sports take up a lot of time in the person’s thinking and behavioral patterns throughout the day. Another sign is experiencing shame, distress, or guilt after a meal. All this is compared to “the previous life,” meaning a notable change exists.

Bodily changes dominate the teenage years when teens feel out of control because their body is growing and developing in a way they are not ready for. Many teens of all genders (!) try to control this change by eating differently or dieting. According to NEDA, 3% of teenagers are experiencing eating disorders. Like many illnesses, eating disorders are complex and involve risk factors that can be biological, psychological, and social or a combination.

Why do I think this is an important topic at a boarding school? Because kids here experience two of the social risk factors. One is acculturation, getting used to a new culture for international students and getting used to different cultures for day students. The accepted body image of your home country or old school might not be the same in the new country and school culture. Here, you are also presented with many different international body types. Another social and psychological aspect is being away from your family, your usual food, and eating patterns; a big one is the stressor “change.” Changing to a new school, new friends, and for day students and “lifers,” this constant coming and going of classmates, roommates, and friends. Stress can be an important trigger for eating differently…

What to do if thinking about food, weight, and calories seem too much? Talk to someone. What if you suspect a room or classmate struggling? Talk to them. NEDA’s campaign 2023 is “Let’s talk about it,” as eating disorders are often hidden and invisible. Approach a trusted friend, a teacher you feel comfortable with, your parents, a coach, or the school counselor. This is the first step. The next step is seeking professional help (in person or online). Maybe the person of your confidence can help you start looking. You would not be the first and not the last person who experiences challenges with food.

Eating disorders have been studied and they exist in all ages, genders, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities. Let’s start talking about this and make these conversations “normal”!

Kindly, Andrea

Andrea Schmitt is a life coach specializing in teenage girls and a former Stanstead parent (Jessica Lozano Schmitt 2018). Find out more about her services at https://www.globalgirlcoach.com/ or email andrea@globalgirlcoach.com.