Spotting college eating disorders

SILVERDALE, Pa. - August 21, 2008

Jackie VanArsdale, 20, of Silverdale, Pennsylvania, is packing up for her third year at Messiah College. She's looking forward to seeing her friends again and competing on the track team. But she also knows college life for her can be difficult.

"Because I'm always going to be eating with other people. People look what's on my plate and I look what's on other people's plate," she said.

Jackie has an eating disorder. It started when she was 14, when she hit puberty and started gaining weight. "It made me feel really uncomfortable, like I took up too much space," she said.

She started cutting calories and running a lot. She lost 30 pounds in two months. She got help then, but her eating disorder came back when she got to college and felt overwhelmed with stress thinking about "boys, friends, classes, future, my career, changing majors."

Again she began restricting food and sneaking around to exercise. She said although she typically appears happy, her smile then was masking emotions she didn't like to feel. So instead of feeling sad or angry she focused on controlling what she could control- her weight.

"The number one thing I wanted was to be thin again, and not just thin but close to death thin," she said.

Laurel Greberman of the Renfrew Center in Radnor specializes in eating disorders. She said college students are more vulnerable to develop a new problem or relapse into an old one like Jackie

"It's becoming such an epidemic on college campuses that we've found at least locally, the colleges are recognizing it by increasing the support that they're offering to students," Greberman said.

But even with that support, people with eating disorders often hide the problem and it's easier to do when parents are miles away. Greberman said signs of a problem can include:

-Withdrawal, such as not calling home or opening up while talking to family members

-Parents may also notice kids not using or over-using money for food.

-Clothing styles may change. (Students may start to wear very baggy or tight-fitting clothing.)

-The obvious signs will be weight loss or gain.

Friends can also help spot trouble. Greberman said people with eating disorders may be "pushing food around the plate, not necessarily eating everything on the plate, only eating food of a particular color or cutting food up in pieces, cutting it up excessively, even food that isn't normally cut."

Jackie admits she was very secretive, but she also knew she needed help. "I was going downhill and I couldn't get myself back up."

Fortunately she told her parents. Her mother had suspected something was wrong but wasn't sure what to do. This summer they got help from Renfrew in the form of group therapy and the center's "College-bound program." Her family is also supportive.

"It's not where you say eat more or eat this, it's more where you say how are you feeling," Jackie's mother said.

Jackie has now overcome a lot and she'll continue pushing to live healthy. Her advice for others struggling is talk to a friend, a parent, or a therapist and get help.

"Be honest with what you're going through because if you keep it a secret, it only gets worse," Jackie said.

If you think a friend may have a problem, experts say it's best to tell them what you've noticed and ask how they're feeling. Greberman said blaming or accusing people won't help. For parents, ask if your child feels comfortable talking to you. If they don't, ask if they'd like to see a professional.

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