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Campus research gets the skinny on eating disorders

By LibMueller
On March 14, 2014

In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a significant eating disorder during their lifetime, which includes anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). From heart irregularities and failure to fainting and fatigue to shame and withdrawal, eating disorders sink their claws deep into a person's very essence.

In extreme cases, an eating disorder can go so far as to claim a person's life. In the U.S., mortality rates for anorexia, bulimia and EDNOS hover between four and five percent, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Despite popular belief, Miami does not have a higher percentage of students with eating disorders than other colleges and universities.

Dr. Rose Marie Ward, a professor in the Kinesiology and Health department, has conducted studies on disordered eating tendencies at Miami to address the misconception that Miami has a disproportionately high rate of eating disorders.

"For years, I heard that Miami had higher eating disorder tendencies," Ward said. "There are stories and myths like one in five Miami students have an eating disorder, which is not true. There is cultural mythology about Miami and the Miami image and eating disorders."

One study Ward and her colleagues did focused on first-year women at Miami.

"We got primarily freshmen," Ward said. "We had 215 women fill out a survey at the beginning of the fall semester and about a month and a half into the fall semester. Although you can't diagnose eating disorders with a survey, what we traditionally find is that our rates of eating disordered tendencies are very similar to the national averages."

Miami participated in the Healthy Minds Study, a national survey that compiles college students' reported mental health status, in 2007, 2009 and 2012. Three percent of Miami students reported having been diagnosed with an eating disorder, according to Student Counseling Service (SCS) Director Kip Alishio.

Fifty percent of Miami students reported that body shape and weight are among the most important things. Nine percent reported eating binges at least once a week; however, 18 percent reported they needed to be thin to feel good about themselves and nine percent of females reported having lost a period due to low body weight.

"The report gives us Miami data, national data and a statistical analysis to show if there is any significant difference," Alishio said. "For the 2012 data, none of the data had significant differences, which was a little surprising to me because there has been a myth or belief that there are more Miami students with eating disorders than elsewhere."

Trends from the 2007 and 2009 data show that Miami fairly consistently aligns with national averages on disordered eating behaviors or body image-related issues. Both at Miami and nationally, the responses to binging at least once a week and "feeling fat" have decreased.

Alishio said he thought the myth that a higher rate of students suffer from eating disorders at Miami than other colleges and universities would prove statistically true.

"We find so many women in particular over the years who feel very much internal pressure, if not external pressure, to look a certain way, to look thin and attractive," Alishio said. "Also the demographics that tend to be more at risk of eating disorders coincide with a large proportion of the demographics of Miami students: European-American, upper middle class, high achievement orientation and somewhat perfectionistic."

Although Miami students do not appear to struggle with eating disorders in higher numbers than other colleges and universities, eating disorders pose immediate and long-term health consequences and can prove fatal. Students wrestling with disordered eating behaviors should seek help, Alishio said.

Senior Audra Smith suffered from anorexia and bulimia before coming to Miami.

"I always felt the pressure to fit in and be thin, ever since I was in middle school," Smith said. "As I grew up and matured, that manifested itself in an unhealthy way. I'm not really sure where it all went wrong. Throughout middle school and high school, I found that by restricting what I ate and binging and purging, I could lose weight. It became like a wildfire and spun out of control."

Smith said the shame was so great, she did not reach out to friends or family for help.

"There's such an element of shame with eating disorders," Smith said. "You don't want anyone to know."

Smith said since coming to Miami, she has conquered her past struggles.

"I never really struggled with eating disorders during my time at Miami because thankfully, the people here and resources were really helpful in my recovery," Smith said. "But this campus is very aesthetically focused. I would be lying if I said I didn't have thoughts about eating disordered behavior. I hear conversations all the time about people wanting to lose weight."

Smith has found relative peace with her body.

"Something I'm learning is, why should I care how I look as long as I feel good and healthy and I'm confident and happy in who I am?" Smith said. "A lot of times we're really focused on looks and fitting it. Sometimes it can be too much."

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