October 23, 2006

Eating Disorders Common at Cornell, Other Colleges

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You may always see the same girl at the gym, treading away at the elliptical, or hear that one of your friends is going to work out — for the third time that day. Eating disorders and exercise compulsion are common at colleges throughout the U.S., and Cornell is no different.

“There are a few facts we know about eating disorders,” said Prof. David Levitsky, nutrition. “The chances of developing an eating disorder increase as education increases and as socioeconomic status increases.”

This fact hits home at Cornell. According to Levitsky, Cornell is not just any institution — it represents the upper socioeconomic strata in the U.S. So, it’s natural to find a high number of eating disorders here.

“Cornell is ripe for eating disorders,” Levitsky said.

The National Eating Disorder Association released a survey of about 1,000 college students in late September. The survey reported that 20 percent of the respondents believe that they have suffered from an eating disorder. Half of those polled by NEDA said they know at least one person who has struggled with an eating disorder.

According to an e-mail from Cris Haltom, a local therapist, “the college environment presents new challenges away from home and familiar surroundings.

New responsibilities and time management challenges can push someone who has early signs of an eating problem into a full eating disorder.”
Haltom also said that many college students are prone to perfectionist attitudes and compulsive work habits, traits associated with eating disorders.

According to Julia Popenoe, a physician at Gannett and member of the Cornell Healthy Eating Program (CHEP), another factor that may contribute to eating disorders developing on campus is the lack of culture around normal eating habits.

While eating disorders are not contingent solely on environmental factors, environment does play a strong role in triggering an eating disorder.

“A lot of people don’t eat regular meals in normal social situations,” Popenoe said. She added that eating in front of the computer and on the run create a negative food culture not only at Cornell, but in America.

“I see a lot of students with disturbed eating patterns, some of which may have been picked up from others they’re eating with,” said Myra Berkowitz, a nutritionist at Gannett. “Cornell’s work-hard, party-hard culture may promote unhealthy eating patterns and lifestyle choices.”

Popenoe also mentioned a study that reported that eating disorders have a strong genetic component.

“Stress of any sort may contribute to someone with a genetic
predisposition for eating disorders actually developing one,” Popenoe said. “I don’t think Cornell has an environment that’s more or less likely to cause eating disorders, but there is a high level or academic stress.”

Cornell has a number of resources for students dealing with issues related to healthy eating, including CHEP, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services (EARS) and the general advice column, Dear Uncle Ezra.

Last year, about 400 Cornell students went to Gannett for an eating disorder, where they received nutritional, psychological, and/or medical help. Popenoe said that roughly 150 students were seen on the medical side, and that six to seven percent were for anorexia, 18 percent for bulimia and 77 percent for unspecified eating disorders.

According to Berkowitz, CAPS holds group sessions for people coping with eating disorders.
Dear Uncle Ezra wrote in an e-mail that he receives about three to five eating-related questions a week, some of which he answers privately and some he posts on the Uncle Ezra website.
EARS counselors focus on eating disorders in the second semester of their three semesters of training. According to Alice Green, the EARS advisor, Berkowitz gives a presentation for EARS counselors on how to try to help someone who has an eating disorder.

One Cornell grad student, who also attended Cornell as an undergrad, suffered from both anorexia and bulimia. She believes that certain stresses in the environment can cause someone to develop an eating disorder.

“I think certain personalities pre-dispose you to eating disorders,” the grad student said. She cited perfectionists and people who want to control everything as two personalities.
The student said that her eating disorder developed because of personal issues involving her family. Thinking about food and
exercise replaced thinking about her personal situation.

Her eating disorder began at the end of her freshman year at Cornell, when she started taking diet pills and restricting her food intake.
“My eating disorder took over my whole way of thinking, without me even realizing it,” she said. “And I received positive reinforcement from others around me — people would tell me how good I looked once I lost weight.”
She said that the positive re-enforcement made her want to lose more weight.
But, at the end of her freshman year, another Cornell student who also suffered from an eating disorder spoke to her sorority. After
listening to the talk, the grad student said she thought, “that sounds familiar.”

During her sophomore year at Cornell, the grad student went to Gannett for CHEP services two to three times a week seeing a nutritionist, physician and counselor. She attributes the program for helping her recover from her eating disorder.

While struggling with her eating disorder, the grad student said that 90 percent of her thoughts were devoted to food. She remembers sitting down in class one day, tallying all the calories she ate for the day, where she would eat lunch and dinner and then figuring out when she would exercise. She said that by the time she finished, the professor was half an hour into lecture.

“It’s easier to have an eating disorder than go through treatment because to get over an eating disorder, you have to change your entire mindset,” the grad student said. “Then you have to deal with all these other problems that you were avoiding by only thinking about food.
“But once you’re out of an eating disorder, you’re entire life changes so much for the better,” she said.