Graduating college made Devon Nespica decide to get help for her bulimia nervosa. It wasn’t when she blacked out from taking too many diet pills or from exhaustion after going to the gym several times a day or when she felt like she ate too much. It took knowing that she was entering the working world for her to realize it needed to end.
For communication studies senior Jamie Engelhardt, it took her parents confronting her with a bowl of pasta for her to get help with her anorexia nervosa. When they asked her to try to eat the entire bowl, the anxiety of eating too much pushed her over the edge.
“It was the first time I was confronted with it because at school nobody confronted me,” Engelhardt said. “I was never pushed to try and change and when I was (in school). I was shaking and crying and realized, ‘Oh my gosh. Something’s wrong with me.'”
Despite having the age difference — Nespica graduated from Cal Poly in 2006 and Engelhardt plans to graduate this year — both students developed serious eating disorders during their freshman year. A combination of being surrounded by other image-conscious women in the dorms, feeling pressure to look good on an attractive, competitive campus and having low self-esteem, kick-started their habits, later forcing them to seek professional treatment.
The battles they faced with bulimia and anorexia mirror many of the challenges students face today. Ninety-one percent of female college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting, and 40 percent of female college students have an eating disorder, according to Walden Behavioral Care, a national treatment facility that specializes in psychiatric disorders.
Although eating disorders are generally viewed as a “woman’s disease,” according to WRC, 1 to 7 percent of male college students will develop an eating disorder while in college.
Having an eating disorder is clinically different from having eating disorder tendencies; however the symptoms are basically the same, associate food science and nutrition professor Lisa Nicholson said.
“Disordered eating,” as defined by the National Eating Disorder Centre, involves people having restrained or compulsive eating patterns that hurt their overall health. People with disordered eating may ignore hunger, have strict eating rules, exercise to an unhealthy level and feel emotionally depressed.
“Restrained eating means that all the choices that you make, you’re not making them because you like the food or want the food,” Nicholson said. “You’re making it for other rationales: ‘Oh, that’s the lowest calorie choice. That’s the choice that’s the most protein, less carbs. That’s the choice that fits my rules that I’ve set up to keep my body weight down.'”
Being clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder has very strict classifications that some people do not meet despite having unhealthy eating habits. For example, anorexia is categorized by patients being 15 percent below their average body weight and bulimia is defined by a patient vomiting at least two times a week for at least three months. Bulimia can also include laxative abuse, excessive exercising or fasting. These extreme patterns, while helpful in diagnosing patients in critical need, leave out people who need help breaking their unhealthy, rigid diet patterns.
Many students on Cal Poly’s campus have “disordered eating” but do not meet the clinical requirements for an eating disorder.
“There’s plenty of people who definitely restrict what they eat and maybe it’s not diagnosable anorexia, but there are so many people who have disordered eating or disordered exercise habits,” Engelhardt said.
In an online poll, 32 percent of the 100 students who participated counted calories “sometimes” and 11 percent counted calories “daily.” These students attributed eating disorders on campus to pressure from attractive peers to be thin.
“Mostly everyone at Poly is in really good shape, and I think it sets really high expectations to look good,” one student wrote.
Nicholson said the pressure to look good on campus may stem from the lack of diversity among students. Students begin looking similar as they move through their four years at Cal Poly, she said.
“It’s amazing how many people comment on the conformity of looks here at Cal Poly,” she said.“There’s a lot of pressure on this campus, I believe, in terms of body size.”
These pressures may begin in the dorms, as it did with Nespica and Engelhardt. Women tend to bond over negative body talk, making picking themselves apart and pointing out their flaws the norm, Engelhardt said. When she lived in the dorms, the girls on her floor began talking about getting in shape in time for spring break. Though Engelhardt’s intention was to lose weight in a healthy way, she began restricting her eating in an unhealthy way.
“If people didn’t eat their whole meal when I was sitting there or they were eating something healthier, then I felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m indulging,’” she said. “It becomes a competition with yourself and also with other people. It’s definitely all-consuming in your mind.”
Nespica experienced this pressure in the dorms as well. Not wanting to gain the “freshman 15,” Nespica was sucked into being obsessed with her weight.
“When everyone is worried about gaining the freshman 15 and everyone is preoccupied with how everybody else looks and what they’re eating and what they’re not eating, it kind of almost spreads to you,” Nespica said. “It’s like a sickness that you can almost catch.”
Disordered eating has very dangerous effects. It can lead to a serious eating disorder or malnutrition, and can also affect the brain and other organs in the body, Nicholson said. She said when there is a lack of calories entering the body, it begins to feed off of the organs for protein which can lead to heart, kidney and liver failure, osteoporosis and esophagus problems. Emotionally, it can lead to depression, a lack of self-worth and impaired relationships.
Trying to help someone with disordered eating is not easy, especially if the person does not want or realize they need the help, Engelhardt said. While she had anorexia at Cal Poly, her friends did not confront her until after she returned to Cal Poly from taking a year off to receive in-house treatment for her disorder.
Nespica’s friends confronted her only after she went to the hospital for taking too many diet pills. In both instances, their friends did not know how to approach the situation.
Nespica said it is important to provide a safe place for a friend to tell their problem. If he or she knows they don’t have to give up their eating habits when admitting they has a disorder, it may help them take that first step toward getting help, she said.
Engelhardt said she encourages friends of people with disordered eating to not be afraid to reach out and touch someone, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Cal Poly’s PULSE peer counseling team, particularly their HEAT team, at the Health Center helps students with eating disorders. Head of counseling at the Health Center Elie Axelroth said women at Cal Poly are more likely to connect their self esteem to their weight compared with other women at different colleges.
To receive help, students may stop by Counseling Services to do an initial evaluation with a counselor. From there, Axelroth said, counselors can help treat or refer students to outside help.
“Some students with eating disorders can be helped by seeing a nutritionist,” Axelroth said. “We’ll either refer them to PULSE or to a nutritionist in the community.”
For more information on how to get help for an eating disorder or to talk face-to-face with a peer counselor, visit PULSE’s location in the downstairs area of the Health Center.