Junkfood Science: Looking into the mirror

May 18, 2007

Looking into the mirror

A young writer for The Post, the student newspaper in Athen, Ohio, wrote an insightful and passionate article on the pressures kids face trying to fit in at college and how it’s a formula for eating disorders. Ashley Luthern’s piece said:

In the mirror

Imagine feeling so guilty after eating potato chips at a restaurant that running the three miles home at midnight is the only way to alleviate the guilt. For Ohio University freshman Kaeli Lear, this was reality as she struggled with anorexia nervosa last year. Eating disorders, obsessive dieting, exercising and taking weight loss pills are results of an overarching problem affecting many college students: body image distortion.

“Body image, an individual’s perspective on his or her appearance, is the biggest predictor of eating disorders, and people attach a sense of self with appearance,” said Associate Professor Dana Levitt, program coordinator for counselor education. Levitt has spent her career researching eating disorders, focusing on college-age women....College students — of many genders and ethnicities — are more susceptible to any type of disorder because of the stressors of a new environment, Levitt said....

This young author got it: the connection between today’s focus on eating less and exercising and the growing problem of dysfunctional eating. Being involved with friends and groups where certain lifestyles and bodies are believed to be what “should be,” leads to distorted body images, explained Dr. Levitt.

For Lear, it was a combination of eating less and exercising more. Her weight fluctuated her senior year of high school...but when she came to college, she felt the familiar pressure to be thin — and anorexia resurfaced. “You go to parties and think, ‘These girls are so pretty.’ You get jealous of other girls and you think, ‘I want that body,’ even if it’s not your body type,” Lear said. Other [Ohio University] students agree that the college atmosphere promotes a culture of thinness.

The author interviewed a number of students who talked openly about what eating disorders are like, the positive control it gave them and the feedback they got that lured them deeper into trouble. It’s valuable reading for parents or healthcare professionals who work with young people and want to better understand the mindset and behaviors that could put their own children at risk. Ms Luthern explored the pressures among guys on campus, too, and how they are different from those girls face. One of the most powerful sentences came from a young woman who said she had known all about the dangers of eating disorders and having a positive body image, but immersed in the culture of thinness that views dieting as normal, “I didn’t even realize what I was doing.”

This is exactly what recent research found: that education alone is ineffective in preventing eating disorders. People young and old who are suffering from dysfunctional eating also don’t always look like we expect them to look and thus don’t get the help they need. The reason, is that many people, even healthcare professionals and fat people themselves, wrongly believe that fat people eat differently than thin people, so if someone is fat they “must” be overeating and eating bad foods.

The statistics at the end of The Post article will give anyone cause to pause. Hopefully, her readers will understand that pushing young people to worry about eating “right” and exercising in the name of “health,” comes with very serious unhealthy consequences that are “a horrible way to live” and a senseless way to die.

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