Disordered eating is a serious problem for many people; it comes with health risks and even the potential for death. For many who struggle with anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders, the bad habits start out seemingly harmless, but snowball into compulsive, addictive-like, harmful behaviors. Young women are most at risk for developing an eating disorder, and spring is the season when many of these disorders take hold.
Young Women and Eating Disorders
Anyone of any age or gender can develop disordered eating habits, but there are certain risk factors. Young women in their teens or 20s are most at risk for developing an eating disorder. Other risk factors include frequent dieting, having an emotional disorder, a family history of eating disorders and important life transitions (e.g., moving or relationship break-ups). Young women are particularly susceptible to developing eating disorders because of societal pressures to be thin. Collectively, as a society, we value thinness in women and that value is expressed in many ways that affect women. Young women see thinness as important in the media. They experience it among their peers, who strive to be thin. They also may have individual experiences of boyfriends or parents who encouraged them to lose weight.
Season Impacts Eating Disorders
Among the young women at risk for developing eating disorders, college-aged women are especially vulnerable. The National Eating Disorders Association has conducted numerous surveys to collect data on the issue. The data tell us that eating disorders most often begin between the ages of 18 and 21, when women are at college. Eating disorders among this population have increased by a troubling 32 percent over 13 years. These young women may become particularly susceptible to developing an eating disorder in the spring. The trend begins with dieting. The holiday season has come to an end, the weather is getting warmer, layers of clothing are being shed, and young women start to think of losing winter weight. They also think about losing weight for spring break trips. Sometimes the dieting that college women engage in is extreme. Major calorie restrictions combined with obsessive workout regimens seem—to many young college students—like practical ways to lose weight quickly. For some young women, this type of dieting may not last long. Many return to normal eating and exercising levels. For others, however, these behaviors set them off on a dangerous path. What starts as a goal to lose weight for spring trips and the summer months becomes a harmful obsession that turns into bulimia, anorexia or another type of disorder.
Avoiding Springtime Diet Obsessions
Women who feel the urge to diet as the weather becomes warmer should know that there are healthy ways to go about slow and steady weight loss. Small dietary changes that include cutting out junk foods and adding in more vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins lead to sustained and normal weight loss. Combining healthy eating with regular exercise, without overdoing it, is the best strategy for getting to and maintaining a healthy weight. For young women, the pressures to be thin can feel overwhelming and can easily lead to the addictive behaviors that become eating disorders. Instead of succumbing to the pressures, young women need support and education about eating disorders. Most college campuses provide mental health services that can help women cope with stresses and pressures that lead to dangerous eating habits. Campus health programs also provide nutritionists who can help students learn how to craft healthy diets. Changing the importance that society places on thinness will only occur one person at a time.