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Dr. Ruth's Guide to College Life - Excepts

Dr. Ruth Excerpts
Dorm Life 101
Morning Larks Versus Night Owls
Noise & Other Distractions
Alcohol & Cigarettes
Drug Use
Sexual Side of Drugs & Alcohol
Food Issues
Mixing of the Sexes
Dorm Alternatives
Work Life
Your Residential Advisor


Food Issues

I don't like to quote statistics because if you look at various sources, you'll usually find different numbers for this or that. But whatever the actual percentage of college students who suffer from eating disorders, they are of a sufficient quantity that this issue cannot be ignored.

I am not so concerned about the so-called Freshman 15, except as it relates to alcohol abuse. If a freshman puts on 15 extra pounds from drinking beer alone, then that is a problem. But even if the extra weight comes from a mixture of beer and junk food, or junk food alone, I would urge you to do your best not to fall victim to this rite of passage. In the first place, it shows a lack of maturity--that without Mom constantly looking over your shoulder, you can't keep yourself from gorging on pizza and chips. It also means that you're probably not eating right, as I doubt that you're piling on the broccoli and carrots too. (It's not uncommon for college students to get diseases that come from not eating a proper diet and that are usually found only among the very poor who can't afford to eat the right foods.) Such extra weight may also indicate that you're not getting enough exercise. And, finally, it might start you on a lifetime of food problems, and that's definitely not one of the lessons you want to include in your college education.

While overeating does have potentially serious health consequences, so can dieting, when it goes to the extremes of anorexia and bulimia. These two eating disorders mostly affect young women, but researchers have seen a definite rise of these conditions in young men as well, though the numbers of men with these problems remain far smaller. As I said earlier, I'm not going to quote you any statistics as to how many people are anorexic or bulimic, but I can almost guarantee that you'll meet some in your dorm. My main concern is to keep you from joining their ranks. In case you're not sure what these terms mean, here are two definitions I took from the Web site of a friend, Dr. Ira Sacker, called I'll tell you a bit more about him later.

Anorexia nervosa is a form of self-starvation leading to a weight loss of over 15 percent of one's body weight. Anorexia is 15 to 1 more common in females and usually starts in adolescence--14 to 16 years of age--but may occur at any age. Complications include cessation of periods, yellowish discoloration of palms and soles, hair loss, heart and kidney failure, and sudden death.

Bulimia nervosa is a primary disorder that gets progressively worse without treatment. It can be accurately diagnosed and treated. If untreated, the bulimic person will feel an increasingly intense compulsion to binge and then purge. Abuse of laxatives and diuretics is common in bulimia. Bulimic people often experience dramatic swelling of the salivary glands, which leads to enlarged cheeks. Teeth darken, and the esophagus can become irritated and in fact burst. Ulcers are common. There may be rupture of the large or small intestine. Each of these effects can kill you.

These disorders stem from psychological problems, so besides being very thin, sufferers often also exhibit depression, irritability, withdrawal, and peculiar behaviors such as compulsive rituals, strange eating habits, and division of foods into "good/safe" and "bad/dangerous" categories. The majority of people who have these disorders began feeling their effects before they got to college. Normally they begin as teenagers, though the age range is growing, so that even girls as young as five or six are being treated for these disorders, which is in part attributable to what is being called second-generation anorexia, so that these youngsters are copying their own mother's behavior. However, the loneliness and anxiety that accompany leaving home can be a trigger for anorexia and bulimia. In addition, if you get close to any students who are anorexic or bulimic, the competitive challenge they offer to be thin may also lead to your joining the ranks of those with an eating disorder, which is why you must be careful. If you feel yourself succumbing to the pull of either of these disorders, you must go for help.

One advantage of college is that there is usually free counseling available, and so if you do realize that you have one of these problems, it should not be difficult to get treatment.

Some students don't want to admit their problem to their friends, in which case they might not want to be seen going for counseling. If that's the case, then they should go to an off-campus clinic rather than avoid getting help altogether. Make sure that if you do go for help, you go to the right people, starting with a medical doctor. While effective treatment will usually include the assistance of a nutritionist, there are medical and psychological aspects to these disorders that require you to see a doctor and counselor as well as a nutritionist.

Case: Phil

Phil noted that his roommate, Geoff, ate very little. He seemed happy enough, but Geoff was very skinny, though he'd admitted to Phil that at one time he'd been on the heavy side. A few times Phil brought up the subject of Geoff's eating habits, but Geoff would get very angry when he did, so he dropped the matter because Phil's health wasn't really his responsibility, though it did worry him.

If you notice that your roommate, or another college friend, has an eating disorder, what should you do? Confronting him or her on a one-to-one basis may not be effective. The person is likely to become defensive and not admit to having an eating disorder. Dr. Sacker recommends that you get together with a few friends and then have a discussion with the person. If several people are telling you that you have a problem, it's a little harder to deny it. And while it may be tempting to ignore the problem, these disorders can be fatal, so at the very least you should advise your RA of your concerns.

If you would like to know more about these disorders, you could look up Dr. Sacker's Web site or one of the many others that exist. However, while the Web can be very helpful in providing information, it also presents a danger, as there are now chat rooms for people who have these diseases and are looking for support in maintaining their condition, rather than getting treatment, and where they can learn about new ways to lose weight or vomit. If you would like to contact Dr. Sacker directly, either for help or for a referral to a doctor in your area, you can call him at (718) 240-6451.

Continued Next

Dorm Life 101 | Morning Larks Versus Night Owls | Noise and Other Distractions | Alcohol and Cigarettes | Drug Use | The Sexual Side of Drugs and Alcohol | Food Issues | The mixing of the Sexes | Dorm Alternatives | Work Life | Your Residential Advisor


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Dr. Ruth's Guide to College Life




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