Hooked on hunger; fixated on food



In a culture that emphasizes consumption, there is one marked exception to the American mantra “more is more”: the world of eating disorders.

By now, the terms “bulimia” and “anorexia nervosa” are as familiar as the names of those who have announced their own struggles with the mental disorders that the terms represent.

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, seven days highlighting a growing problem.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, as many as 10 million females and 1 million males in the U.S. have eating disorders. The association’s website reports that, “Anorexia nervosa has the highest premature fatality rate of any mental illness.” Eating disorders have also been on the rise for the last several decades.

According to Jill Kindy, health education coordinator for the University Health Service, UK is not exempt from the national problem. She estimated that aboyt half of her patents “are struggling with eating issues,” and that in the fall semester she saw “some pretty sick kids.” She added that “it’s hard to know what the actual situation is” since eating disorders tend to be kept secret.

“The majority of my clients are college-age,” Donna Foster, director of the Kentucky Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, which is the only adult treatment center for eating disorders in the state, said. Foster said she frequently treats students from UK at her center, located on Wellington Way.

Kindy said UK seems to be in step with the national trend of an increase in eating disorders.

“It’s branching out into areas where we haven’t seen it before,” Kindy said, noting that men, international students and non-white students on campus are being treated for eating disorders in increasing numbers.

Kindy speculated that this rise could be due to a variety of factors, one being the increased emphasis on food created by the battle against American obesity.

“In the fight to prevent eating disorders, we get more eating disorders,” Kindy said.

The fear of being overweight may be exacerbated by the college environment. For example, the same students experiencing the increased eating freedom of being away from home for the first time may also be feeling an increased desire to fit in.

“There is an abundance of food around that goes against the ‘I need to look a certain way for spring break,’” Kindy said.

She said communal college living might also increase weight anxiety because of competition.

“A sorority is an example of a group that can be very competitive,” Kindy said. “Whenever you get a group of girls together, they can start competing with each other. I think we see a higher instance (of eating disorders) in sororities.”

Sometimes, however, eating disorders seem to follow no pattern.

“A lot of my patients are regular old students,” Kindy said, noting that a student with an eating disorder might look like his or her life is all together or in complete chaos.

“It (an eating disorder) just doesn’t seem to be picky,” she said.

Kindy said that typically students will begin an eating disorder after they gain weight, panic and start dieting.

“Almost every eating disorder starts with a diet,” Kindy said. Though many students stop with the diet, some continue regardless of the ramifications.

“Most of us don’t keep doing something that hurts,” Kindy said.

Foster noted that genetics can also play a part in someone’s likelihood to struggle with disordered eating.

“They run in families,” Foster said. “Genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger.”

Physically, more is involved with an eating disorder than starving or purging.

“It becomes addictive,” Foster said. “Dieting and exercise change brain chemistry.”

She explained that drastic diets can actually release endorphins.

“Anorexics get high on hunger,” Foster said. “It gives them a feeling of power. They are better than others because they don’t have to eat.”

Similarly, Foster said students with bulimia might enjoy binging on carbohydrates because they release serotonin; a student with bulimia might then become addicted to the release of the calming hormone vasopressin experienced while purging.

Beyond hormone secretion, eating disorders can meet deep psychological needs for some students. Kindy said one of her patients described the psychological aspect of her disordered eating in a way that stuck with her. The patient said, “Sometimes it (the eating disorder) was a teddy bear, and it was very comforting, and other times it was a grizzly bear and very scary.”

Kindy said eating disorders can be “like a numbing effect” that distracts students from their problems. Because their bodies are so physically strained and drained of nutrients, “You can only focus on the task at hand,” Kindy said. “You don’t have the energy to think about the crap in your life.”

Both Kindy and Foster agreed that eating disorders are often accompanied by other emotional or psychological issues.

Kindy said another analogy that helped her understand what can seem like highly irrational behavior involves a life preserver. She said students with eating disorders can be like people struggling to stay afloat (survive life’s stresses) with a life preserver (an eating disorder). They don’t know how to swim (cope with stresses), so if the life preserver is taken away, it must be replaced with something else.

Eating disorder treatment involves replacing dangerous behaviors and emotions with healthier ones.

“I’m about focusing on inner beauty, and all foods can work in moderation,” Kindy said. She suggested talking about disorders and getting them out in the open.

“The secretiveness is the kind of thing that keeps it going,” Kindy said.

The involvement of loved ones is important for the treatment of eating disorders. Kindy said friends may be faced with denial or anger, but should express concern if they think their friend might have an eating disorder, though ultimately, the person has to make the decision. She suggested that students use the line, “It scares me when you …” when talking to a friend.

“The worst thing would be to ignore it,” Kindy said. “The best thing is to say something.”