Eating disorders at university

By Carolyn Flanagan
Assistant Blogs Editor

February was National Eating Disorder Awareness Month.

A highly complex mental health disorder, Mental Health First Aid Canada defines eating disorders as “severe disturbances in eating habits (either eating too much or too little), or weight control behaviour.”

Prevalent among university students, the most common eating disorders for the age demographic are anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating.

Peer Health Outreach Co-ordinator Beth Doxsee said eating disorders have many triggers. “There can be a family link—be it genetic or because of a role model,” she said. “There are social and cultural factors as well. We are constantly bombarded with messages and images about an ideal body type that may not be attainable.”

Doxsee said there’s often an underlying mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression.

“The food restriction or consumption becomes a way to deal with other things going on. There is a need to feel control,” she said.

A university-wide survey conducted in 2008 by Student Affairs showed that 5 per cent of students had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Almost 50 per cent of students surveyed said they were trying to lose weight, even though 60 per cent had a healthy Body Mass Index standing.

Still a taboo subject in many circumstances, misconceptions persist about the disorder.

Eating disorders are often considered as only an issue in women, but rates of anorexia and bulimia are climbing in men.

“There is also the misconception that it won’t go away,” Doxsee said. “You can get better.” “If you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to see the signs,” said Doxsee. “Reaching out to anyone, friends or family is an important step. Then get professional help as soon as possible.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all way of dealing with eating disorders. Next steps may involve seeing a counselor, eating disorder clinics, or eventually seeing a registered dietitian. If you see the signs in a friend and want to help, Doxsee said it’s important to be patient and come from a place of concern.

“Say what you see, don’t make any quick judgements,” she said, adding that an example would be tocomment how they seem tired or have less energy.

“If they’re not ready, always keep that door open so they know you can be someone they can approach.”

For further advice, Doxsee recommends calling HCDS to speak to one of the counselors. You can also provide additional support by accompanying someone as they attend appointments.

“They’re so common in this age range, if you can be that one person of support for someone, that’s reason enough to learn about it.”

Doxsee said the more people know about eating disorders, the chances of people getting help are much greater.

“It has such a high death rate, which may be something people forget,” she said. “It’s complex, but important to talk about.”

Warning signs to watch for, in yourself or in a friend


• Not consuming food often—skipping meals, avoiding mealtimes with friends

• Drastic loss of weight

• Get cold much easier due to lack of insulation in the body

• Hair falls out from lack of nutrition

• Fatigued, tired and weak

• Very rigid workout schedule—up to four hours a day, even if sick or have other things to do

• Preoccupied with food and calories from moment of waking up to moment of going to bed


• Preoccupied with food and calories

• More likely to stay close to current weight

• Excuse themselves after meals

• May smell of vomit, have laxatives around

• Bloodshot eyes

• Enamel on the teeth begins to wear away

• Scars on knuckles

Tips on how to stay positive

With pressure from the media and our peers’ preoccupation with dieting, it can be difficult to maintain a healthy body image and healthy habits in today’s society. Personal Trainer and Lifestyle Consultant Pam Fountas offered tips on how to keep ourselves in check when thinking about our bodies:

Treat your body as an instrument, not an ornament- Value your body for what it can do, not just what it appears to be. Reflect on what your body does for you on a daily basis.

Take care of your body- Learn about what your body really needs rather than the next new diet. Focus on being healthier rather than thinner.

Challenge the values of today’s society- Be aware of the culture at large that is trying to make us feel insecure so that we buy products so they can make money. There’s a social influence we need to be aware of.

Set objective goals- Rather than setting goals about its external appearance, think about what your body could do. For example, try a new challenge like yoga. • Be realistic about your body’s genetics- Embrace your body as it is now.

Think of time wasted and energy directed- Re-channel the energy you put into feeling about how you look and redirect it towards something positive.

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