Eating Disorders

Eating disorders comprise anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, compulsive overeating, and disturbed eating patterns. They range in severity from mild to life-threatening. Timely treatment of all eating disorders is recommended to avoid worsening symptoms and long-term complications. Both men and women suffer from eating disorders, though they are more prevalent among the latter. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, between 0.5 and 4 percent of Canadian women have anorexia; between 1 and 4 percent of Canadian women have bulimia. In addition, about 2 percent of Canadians experience binge-eating disorder.

Both anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are based on an intense fear of weight gain, which results in an unhealthy and destructive relationship with food and significant disruption to eating. Anorexia nervosa is characterized by significant loss of weight (less than 85 percent of expected weight), an intense fear of gaining weight, a severely restricted intake of food, and a preoccupation with food and weight. This latter symptom is primarily the result of the severe restriction of intake.

Bulimia nervosa is characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by inappropriate behaviours to prevent weight gain, such as self-induced vomiting; misuse of laxatives, diuretics, and enemas; fasting; and/or excessive exercise. Students with eating disorders experience significant weight loss (in anorexia nervosa), difficulties with concentration, chronic fatigue, decreased strength of immune system and susceptibility to illness, an obsession with food that dominates the student's life, extreme moodiness, excessive vulnerability to stress, social withdrawal, repetitive injuries and pain from compulsive exercise, and excessive perfectionism or rigidity.

Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse often accompany eating disorders. The severely restricted intake of food in anorexia nervosa and the disruption of eating in bulimia nervosa can lead to very serious health complications and, in some cases, death. If a student's eating disorder jeopardizes her/his physical and emotional health, s/he may need to leave school and enter intensive treatment.

If you believe that a student may have an eating disorder, express your concern about her/his health. Refer the student to the resources available on campus, including university health and counselling services.

Next Up: Self-Injurious Behaviour