Body Image & Eating Disorders

More than two-thirds of American women are dissatisfied with their bodies and, on college campuses, 60-90 percent of young women are dieting or trying to lose weight, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Around 10 percent of college females are engaging in bingeing and purging as a weight-management technique.

We also know that eating disorders are not just a women’s issue; approximately 10 percent of those with eating disorders are men. Many young men are also struggling with compulsive exercising and/or abusing supplements or steroids.

Discover useful information and resources about body image and eating disorders as well as resources for helping a friend. 

Eating Disorders Assessment

The CSU Health Network welcomes you to a free, anonymous, online screening program for depression, alcohol, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. It only takes a few minutes to complete any or all of the assessments.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder, include extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues that can have life-threatening consequences for females and males.

Anorexia Nervosa is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.

Symptoms include:

  • Refusal to maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal weight for height, body type, age and activity level
  • Intense fear of weight gain or being “fat”
  • Feeling “fat” or overweight despite dramatic weight loss
  • Loss of menstrual periods
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Bulimia Nervosa  is a secretive cycle of binge eating followed by purging. Bulimia includes eating large amounts of food–more than most people would eat in one meal–in short periods of time, then getting rid of the food and calories through vomiting, laxative abuse or over-exercising.

Symptoms include:

  • Repeated episodes of bingeing and purging
  • Feeling out of control during a binge and eating beyond the point of comfortable fullness
  • Purging after a binge, (typically by self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives, diet pills and/or diuretics, excessive exercise or fasting)
  • Frequent dieting
  • Extreme concern with body weight and shape

Binge eating disorder  (also known as COMPULSIVE OVEREATING) is defined primarily by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full. While there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets and often feelings of shame or self-hatred after a binge. People who overeat compulsively may struggle with anxiety, depression and loneliness, which can contribute to their unhealthy episodes of binge eating. Body weight may vary from normal to mild, moderate or severe obesity.

Other eating disorders can include some combination of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia and/or binge eating disorder. While these behaviors may not be clinically considered a full syndrome eating disorder, they can still be physically dangerous and emotionally draining. Eating disorders require professional help.

Potential Causes

Eating disorders are complex conditions that arise from a combination of long-standing psychological, interpersonal and social conditions. Scientists and researchers are still learning about the underlying causes of these emotionally and physically damaging conditions. We do know, however, about some of the general issues that can contribute to the development of eating disorders.

While eating disorders may begin with preoccupations with food and weight, they are most often about much more than food. People with eating disorders often use food and the control of food in an attempt to compensate for feelings and emotions that may otherwise seem overwhelming. Dieting, bingeing and purging may begin as a way to help some people cope with painful emotions and to feel as if they are in control of their lives, but ultimately, these behaviors will damage their physical health, self-esteem and sense of competence and control.

Psychological Factors:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of inadequacy or lack of control in life
  • Depression, anxiety, anger or loneliness

Interpersonal Factors:

  • Troubled family and personal relationships
  • Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings
  • History of being teased or ridiculed based on size or weight
  • History of physical or sexual abuse

Social Factors:

  • Cultural pressures that glorify “thinness” and place value on obtaining the “perfect body”
  • Narrow definitions of beauty that include only women and men of specific body weights and shapes
  • Cultural norms that value people on the basis of physical appearance and not inner qualities and strengths

Other Factors:

Scientists are still researching possible biochemical or biological causes of eating disorders. In some individuals with eating disorders, certain chemicals in the brain that control hunger, appetite and digestion have been found to be imbalanced. The exact meaning and implications of these imbalances is still under investigation.

Eating disorders are complex conditions that can arise from a variety of potential causes. Once started, however, they can create a self-perpetuating cycle of physical and emotional destruction. Eating disorders require professional help.  The CSU Health Network Counseling Services, (970) 491-6053 is available to help students with body image and eating disorders.

Signs and Symptoms

The following are signs and symptoms associated with eating disorders. If you or your friend has been experiencing any of these, get help. 

  • Extreme weight loss in a short amount of time
  • Excessive talk and preoccupation with body size and weight despite appearing thin
  • Strict rituals relating to food and eating, secrecy
  • Excuses to avoid meal times
  • Rigid exercise routines even when sick or injured
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meal times
  • Evidence of binge eating (disappearance of large amounts of food)
  • Dizziness or blackouts
  • Fatigue, social withdrawl
  • Mood swings, extreme highs and lows
  • Change in appearance in hair and skin including hair loss
  • Extreme temperature sensitivity
  • Chest pain or extreme stomach pains
  • Tingling of the hands or feet
  • Blood in stools or vomit
  • Uncontrollable vomiting
  • Incontinence

How To Help A Friend With An Eating Disorder

It can be challenging assisting a friend or a family member who has an eating disorder. Eating disorders do not happen overnight. By the time that you have noticed the illness or your friend has confided in you, it’s likely that the behavior has been going on for a long time and that the emotional distress accompanying the disorder has been present even longer.

  • Be Understanding. Support and encourage your loved one to express her/himself to you. The eating disorder is often about emotional/mental distress. Learn to listen attentively. You might not understand everything that is going on, and it is ok to admit that in a gentle way.
  • Express your concerns directly. Let your friend know that you are concerned about her/his eating habits. If your friend is willing to talk with you, listen with acceptance and without judgment.
  • Offer hope. Assistance is available. Encourage your loved one to seek professional help. The CSU Health Network Counseling Services, (970) 491-6053 assists students with eating disorders.
  • Know the limits of your responsibility. Often individuals with friends or family members with an eating disorder take on the role of Food Police. Statements such as, “What have you eaten today?” or “What were you just doing in the bathroom?” are not necessarily constructive for you or the person challenged with an eating disorder. If your friend doesn’t respond right away to your offer to help, don’t blame yourself. Try again later. Do not keep your friends problem a secret for fear of making her/him angry or getting her/him in trouble. Seek professional help, so you do not feel alone and have someone to turn to for guidance. Eating disorders are serious health conditions that can be both physical and emotionally destructive. People with eating disorders are encouraged to seek professional help. Early diagnosis and intervention significantly enhances recovery. If not identified or treated in the early stages, eating disorders can become chronic, debilitating and even life-threatening conditions.

Body Acceptance

People with negative body image have a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder and are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem and obsessions with weight loss.

We all may have our days when we feel awkward or uncomfortable in our bodies, but the key to developing positive body image is to recognize and respect our natural shape and learn to overpower those negative thoughts and feelings with positive, affirming and accepting ones.

Here are a few suggestions when it comes to developing a positive body image:

  • Work to avoid negative self-talk. When you find yourself being self-critical, bring your awareness to these thoughts and pay yourself a compliment instead. Performing this mini exercise will soon assist in shifting the way you perceive yourself.
  • How much you weigh should never affect your self-esteem or your sense of who you are. Strive for a lifestyle that finds a balance when it comes to food and fitness.
  • See if you can avoid the mirror for a day or even a week. Spend less time in front of the mirror, especially when the experience makes you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious about your body.

Media Influence
Turn a critical eye towards advertising and the media. Media, such as TV, radio and magazines, often can provide unhealthy behaviors and ideals. Advertisements are created to do one thing: convince you to buy or support a specific product or service.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, research shows that media does contribute to and can increase body dissatisfaction or disordered eating. Also, studies have connected exposure to the thin ideal in media to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal, and disordered eating among women. Pressure from media to be muscular can be related to body dissatisfaction in males. 

As individuals, we can become more mindful of how we experience the media messages we encounter, consciously filtering to protect our self-esteem and body image.

Exercise Addiction

Some exercise daily is good for you, so more must be better, right? Well, sometimes more is just that – more. There comes a point of diminishing returns and your body says enough. Balance is the key for many things in life, including physical activity.

What is Exercise Addiction? It is defined as psychological and/or physical dependence on a regular regime of exercise characterized by withdrawal symptoms after 24 to 36 hours.

So, How Do You Know You’ve Become An Exercise Addict? The logical response is simple: When your exercise controls you, instead of the other way around. When, no matter the circumstances or previous commitments, you must get a workout in today.

Exercise Dependency Symptoms – It’s important to be able to recognize the signs of excessive exercise before they become chronic. Physical signs of include:

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when restricted from exercise
  • Pattern of exercise with a regular schedule of more than once daily
  • Decreased performance
  • Loss of coordination
  • Prolonged recovery
  • Elevated morning heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Extreme muscle soreness/tenderness
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Decreased ability to ward off infection

Keep in mind that not all the signs are physical. Much like regular exercise has a positive effect on mood and stress levels, too much exercise can do just the opposite, leaving the exerciser irritable and depressed. Psychological and emotional signs include:

  • Prioritizing exercise over other important activities and relationships
  • Engaging in exercise despite related health problems
  • Depression
  • Apathy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional sensitivity
  • Reduced self-esteem

Understand The Cause – Once you recognize the signs of excessive exercise, it’s important to understand and honestly confront the cause. For some, it occurs as a result of an upcoming competition. Increased training prior to an event is understandable, but if it’s interfering with your health and well-being, you have to question its worth. The body needs sufficient time to adjust to your increased demands.

For others, the basis for excessive exercise may have more to do with emotional or psychological reasons than physical ones. Much like eating disorders, exercise addiction is now recognized as a legitimate problem. This includes exercising beyond the point of exhaustion, while injured, or to the exclusion of all other aspects of one’s life. It’s a difficult problem to recognize, particularly in a culture where discipline and control are applauded.

Individuals who exercise excessively are risking more than poor performance, they’re risking their health. Overuse syndrome, which may lead to more serious injuries, is common. The emotional cost of isolating oneself in order to exercise can be devastating. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or in a friend, it is essential that you seek professional help.

The M Word – The key to staying healthy is to do everything in moderation, which is best viewed as something relative to one’s own fitness level and goals. Don’t expect to exercise an hour every day simply because your very fit friend does. The body needs time to adjust, adapt and, yes, even recuperate. Exercising to the point of extreme exhaustion is simply taking two steps back.

Healthy Exercising Strategies – The following are some strategies that one can follow to help guard against addiction:

  • Train with hard and easy days. Alternating low-intensity with high-intensity workouts can keep the body from breaking down and also keep things in the proper perspective.
  • Try to find a partner to work out with who is not obsessed with exercise. This will keep the exerciser from becoming overly obsessed and help him or her stay more realistic.
  • Make sure to schedule rest days as part of the exercise regimen. This will allow the body to recuperate and keep the person from exercising when hurt and tired.
  • When the exerciser is injured, make sure that he or she has fully recovered before beginning to exercise again.
  • Set realistic short-and long-term goals.

Campus Resources

Counseling Services has a group of caring professionals ready to assist students in need of support or assessment of disordered eating. For an appointment with a counselor, call (970) 491-6053.

Nutrition Consultation is a low-cost service that helps CSU students establish healthy dietary practices. Staffed by an experienced registered dietitian with experience treating eating disorders, individual counseling sessions are offered for disordered eating (bulimia, anorexia nervosa, binging and purging, use of laxatives or diet pills). To schedule an appointment: call (970) 491-5058.

Campus Recreation provides personally designed programs to help you achieve your fitness goals with One-on-One or Partner Training sessions with our nationally certified personal trainers. Comprehensive Fitness Assessments and Body Composition appointments are also available.

Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center  offers nominally priced services to students including nutrition counseling, body composition assessment, cooking classes and demonstrations and much more. 

Web Resources

Academy for Eating Disorders  promotes ways for effectively treating and caring for patients with eating disorders as well as furthering support and education for eating disorders. The AED offers links to special interest groups such as athletes, Hispanics and child/adolescents with eating disorders.

The Body Project  provides a wealth of information regarding body acceptance and focuses on increasing awareness and acceptance of the human body in all its shapes and sizes.

Bulimia.com is a collection of online resources including a resource catalog, blogs by experts, clinical articles, and recovery articles.  

Eating Disorders Center of Denver  is a local treatment center that has a lot of information regarding eating disorders, treatments, and other resources.

Eating Disorders Coalition provides information on congressional briefings, legislative updates, and reports on eating disorders and federal policies. EDC focuses on education and working with congress to effectively influence federal policy. They have also worked to increase funding and support for scientific research on the causes, prevention and treatment of eating disorders.

Half of Us  is aimed at helping college students become aware of mental health issues and getting them the help and support they need.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) provides a variety of programs and services. Through its hot-line and response to mail and e-mail inquiries, ANAD provides counsel and information to thousands of anorexics, bulimics, compulsive eaters, their families and health professionals from all parts of the globe.

National Eating Disorders Association(NEDA) is an excellent web site for a wide range of audiences who may have an eating disorder or a friend/family member with an eating disorder. They offer prevention programs, and educational material to help people eliminate eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. NEDA also has the nation’s first toll-free eating disorders information and referral line.

ULifeline is an online resource that college students can use to anonymously and privately find information concerning emotional health.