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Starving for affection

Eating disorders currently affect 5 – 10 million those in the United States, which is more than people who are affected by both Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia combined, according to Pauline Powers, a USF psychiatry professor specializing in eating disorders.

In recognition of the fact that a large number of people are affected by eating disorders, the National Eating Disorders Screening Program started holding anonymous screenings during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week on more than 600 college campuses in 1996.

USF’s Counseling Center for Human Development and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine will participate in this year’s National Eating Disorders Week held Feb. 25 through March 4 and will be offering a variety of educational seminars and anonymous screening opportunities, said Dale Hicks of the counseling center.

Eating disorders tend to start between the ages of 14 and 18 ,when the body is changing rapidly, which also corresponds with the transition of going to college and leaving home, Powers said.

At least 3 percent of college students have an eating disorder, and symptoms that start in high school tend to get worse in college, Powers said.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), adolescent and young women account for 90 percent of eating disorders.

Binge eating affects 1 to 5 percent of the total population in the United States, with as much as 25 percent of those binge eating thought to be men. One in 200 women has anorexia, while one man in 2,000 is anorexic, Powers said.

Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are the most common eating disorders, Hicks said.

“Individuals with anorexia have a body image distortion that causes them to see themselves as overweight even if they are dangerously thin. People with this disorder often refuse to eat and exercise compulsively,” Hicks said. “Individuals with bulimia overeat and then purge their bodies of the food by vomiting or using laxatives.”

Hicks said people with binge eating disorder, like those with bulimia, experience frequent periods of out-of-control eating. However, binge eaters do not purge their bodies of the excess calories.

Certain psychological factors can predispose people to develop eating disorders. Dysfunctional families, relationships, personality traits, low self-esteem and intense dissatisfaction with the way they look, can lead to an eating disorder, Hicks said.

“Eating disorders are mental illnesses,” Powers said. “Genetics can influence the risk of eating disorders, as well as familial factors, and like other psychological disorders, sex abuse can result in eating disorders.”

Powers said treatment for eating disorders generally goes hand-in-hand with psychotherapy because “eating disorders rarely travel alone.”

About 25 percent of people with anorexia have obsessive compulsive disorder and 50 percent of them are suffering from depression, Powers said. Around 40 percent of bulimics have a substance abuse problem with either alcohol or cocaine or narcotics, and 25 percent of bulimics have bipolar disorder. A majority of them also suffer from depression, Powers said.

Research done by the American Psychological Association shows that eating disorders are one of the psychological problems least likely to be treated. These disorders generally do not go away by themselves and can cause serious consequences.

Hair loss, anemia, tooth decay and amenorrhea, (the cessation of menstruation) can all result from an eating disorder. The NIMH estimates that one in 10 anorexia cases ends in death from starvation, suicide or medical complications, such as kidney failure.

Eating disorders can effectively be treated 70 percent of the time through a combination of counseling, visiting a nutritionist and sometimes medication, Powers said.

“Here at USF, we have a counseling center that is free for students,” Hicks said. “The counseling center works with health services, who has a nutritionist on hand to help students understand what a healthy diet is and what steps they need to take to balance a healthy diet with a healthy lifestyle.”

The counseling center also has a Web site that offers an anonymous online screening for different eating disorders, Hicks said.

“Since the Web page started running in September ,the site has gotten 200 hits a month. It’s good for people that are hesitant about initially coming into the counseling center, and it’s an easy way to do it,” Hicks said.

After an evaluation, the next step is treatment. The goal is to make a healthy lifestyle change that an individual can stick with, Hicks said.

Identifying the problem and treating it can be tough on the person with the disorder. The recovery process goes more smoothly for that person if he or she has a support group, Powers said.

“Don’t be afraid to take a friend or a family member and enlist them as a support system,” Powers said.

When approaching someone about questionable eating or exercise habits be honest with them, be caring, but be firm about the problem, Hicks said.

“If he or she does not seek help, then tell someone who can help, like a counselor or their parents,” Hicks said.

For more information on eating disorders or mental health, contact USF’s Counseling Center for Human Development at 974-2831, or go to the Student Services Building, Room 2124.

Contact Annie Curnowat