A few pieces of asparagus. A half of piece of ravioli. And sauce smeared across the plate. The contents do not even amount to enough calories for one meal.
But just the thought of the food sitting in Mary’s stomach made her excuse herself from the table to walk around her house for 15 minutes.
It was just the thought that the food just sitting there in her stomach would end up making her fat that made Mary not want to eat. But then the realization that she has to eat is what makes her stress about and obsess over calorie counting.
For the calorie obsessed, weight loss is not a goal, but it is rather a perpetual journey of failure.
“The comorbidity between eating disorders and depression is high because they are never satisfied,” said psychology major Brittany Sakovich ’11, who has witnessed three of her close friends struggle with an eating disorder similar to Mary’s.
It is estimated that 25 percent of the nation’s college students suffer from eating disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Although this number is estimated, the 25 percent only accounts for the reported eating disorder situations; many people feel that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing to themselves and never seek help.
In a survey of 50 Fairfield University seniors, 27 reported knowing someone prescribed medication for depression.
The relationship between depression and eating disorders while not mutually exclusive, does exist, and from this survey the numbers are high enough to suggest that a reasonable amount of people on Fairfield’s campus know someone that may have an eating disorder.
When Mary agreed to see a nutritionist to please her parents, she was informed that her blood pressure was dangerously low, she had 18% body fat and her body had stopped metabolizing gluten.
Mary had only begun this cycle of eating 400 calories a day and burning off 1000 about five months ago. Although some of the short-term effects are quickly reversible, many of them, such as metabolizing gluten, are difficult for the body to recover from.
“There are several long-term problems with anorexia. Osteoporosis is one concern, which is a lifelong effect of anorexia. In some cases, infertility can be a result of interfering with a woman’s normal menstrual cycle. A shortage of potassium can be a side effect of anorexia which affects and can damage muscles and in particular the heart,” said Dr. Elise Harrison, Associate Director of Counseling and Psychological Services.
Eating disorders are a growing public health threat and the lack of an appropriate response has created a lethal situation, according to the Renfrew Center Foundations’ Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics, and Resources.
Although Mary may recover from the physical symptoms, the psychological aftermath is excruciatingly difficult for not only Mary, but also for her family and friends, to deal with.
There is a reason why this topic is covered in multiple psychology classes here at Fairfield University: Because “it is a psychological disorder with physiological effect,” said Sakovich.
Whenever Mary would leave her nutritionist’s office with promises to eat more and keep a food journal, she only increased the proportion sizes in her journal. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with her and couldn’t notice the degeneration of her body and mind because it had been happening gradually.
The pressures that peers and society puts on both males and females to fit in, has the effect on certain people to become obsessive about weight and dieting that have a reverse effect and make them stand out.
“Anorexia does make students stand out. For some people in the middle of their illness, they may feel special, but in fact one of the symptoms of anorexia is social isolation. Refocusing on ways to interact with people in ways that do not deal with physical appearance is important to recovery from anorexia,” said Dr. Harrison.
Another big problem is parents, according to Sakovich.
In our society parents pressure their children; otherwise they are scared they will not do well. Parents being oblivious or harping on their children about whether or not they really need that last piece of cake doesn’t make the issue any better.
“Some parents are not sensitive to how huge of an issue this is. I think many parents provoke children to be fit, because of the obesity problem in our country, but they are prolonging this issue. If a person with this issue is going to die, parents can’t give them a choice to have treatment or not,” said Sakovich.
Before even stepping foot on a college campus, “Students are warned about gaining the freshman 15,” said Harrison.
“I think people need hope and need to have someone support them to see that they can have a better, happier life with resolution of their eating disorder. Early treatment can be important in recovery from an eating disorder,” said Harrison.
After dealing with the disorder for half of a year, Mary’s parents decided to put her in an in-patient facility, where over the course of a few weeks she gained back some of the weight she had lost. Her future was looking brighter than it had in a while, but unfortunately this is something she will continue to struggle with every day for the rest of her life.
With any disease, the first step towards recovery is the willingness to accept treatment.
The number of college students who seek help with an eating disorder is less than ten percent. And even when students do seek help, they struggle with a strong fear when they have to start eating again, according to Dr. Harrison.
Acclimation back into society is difficult enough, but when magazines are flashing images of paper-thin and airbrushed celebrities, this acts as the cue for the calorie counters to return to their disorder.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
“The body type portrayed in advertising as the ideal is possessed naturally by only 5% of American females,” according to the Renfrew Center Foundations’ Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics, and Resources.
Marilyn Monroe wore a dress size equivalent to a size 6 today. It begins with supporting those with eating disorders early and helping those who truly want to get better, with a goal that we will no longer have such a lethal disease attacking our nation’s college students.
“Show them don’t live to eat, eat to live,” said Sakovich
Mary is a real Fairfield student, her name has been changed and her last name witheld due to the sensitive nature of the article.