PLNU students in the dietetics and nutrition majors may be more inclined to eating disorders than other students.
According to a 2005 study by Roger Hughes and Ben Desbrow, professors in the School of Public Health at Griffith University in Australia, one third of dietetics students are motivated to enter the field by personal experiences with obesity or eating disorders.
Cindy Swann, director of dietetics and an associate professor at PLNU, said this higher percentage is typical in nutrition.
“Students learn a lot about what they need to know to manipulate their diet,” she said. “It’s frustrating for us because we teach classes and say all food fits, and we have students who are extremely restrictive and think that’s healthy and they should be praised. So we are exposing them to these things and they say ‘I don’t eat that.’”
Eating disorders range across a spectrum from anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa to binge eating disorder. Orthorexia, a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1996 meaning an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, is not yet an official medical diagnosis like the others.
Swann said orthorexia allows students to think they are eating healthy, so they can exclude foods like animal products, sugar or gluten from their diets, even without an allergy or some other medical problem to justify the expulsion.
“The biggest threat [with eliminating food from their diet] is that they are missing whole class of nutrients that they’re not aware of,” Swann said.
Kris Lambert, an adjunct nursing professor at PLNU and psychiatric nurse for 30-35 years, currently works at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. She said people take interest in the things that they are connected to.
“People are drawn –it’s like, why do people go into psychology? I mean, really? They’re working through their own stuff. So I wouldn’t be surprised in dietetics. Sometimes it’s in the guise of ‘Oh, I’m just being healthy,’ and it’s like ‘Oh, yeah, okay.’ Healthy does not mean restricting. That’s not being healthy.”
Crystal Karges, a 2007 PLNU alumna, received her degree in dietetics and minored in biology. She currently runs her own San Diego private practice specializing in eating disorder treatment and recovery, which includes providing nutritional counseling.
“I struggled with an eating disorder during my college years, and many of my experiences became defined by this,” Karges said. “As I recovered from my eating disorder, I knew that I wanted to help others who also suffered. I have always been passionate about nutrition, and through my experience in recovery, I wanted to pursue this area professionally. This influenced my decision to obtain my degree in dietetics from PLNU.”
A February 2013 study by the National Eating Disorders Association stated that eating disorders among college students have risen to 10 to 20 percent of women and four to 10 percent of men. Karges said that the stressors of college may be to blame.
“A young woman or man may not seek the help they need to overcome an eating disorder due to shame, guilt, fear, lack of resources or simply being unaware of the seriousness of their condition,” Karges said. “Because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate among mental illnesses, early detection, intervention and treatment are vital for recovery.”
Senior dietetics majors Katelyn Mazza and Jessica Stewart both spend two days a week for four to five hours working with 10-18 and 18-50 year-olds, respectively, as diet technicians in the Center for Discovery, a La Jolla residential treatment facility for eating disorders.
Mazza said the treatment facility is not the only place she’s seen disordered eating.
“People are always talking about getting something that’s healthier for them and they do it more out of guilt than anything or it’s seen as a good thing if you’re on a diet,” Mazza said. “That comes up in conversation all the time…So it’s just trying to, if I’m with friends even, redirect that kind of talk. My biggest thing is focusing on intuitive eating.”
Mazza said the college environment is conducive to strange eating habits because of the difficulty in fixing a balanced meal with the meal plans and limited food availability in dorms.
Her approach is to show that she is not hyperconscious of what she eats and to refocus conversation from dieting to ‘all food fits.’
“You eat what you want, knowing that you can have more later or not, not restricting yourself or you’ll just want things more. With that, you know what makes your body feel good, so in a way you’ll end up eating a good balance and be healthy enough.”
Stewart said she thinks most people have disordered ways of eating and that dieting and food fads influence what students choose to eat in the Caf.
“You go to the Caf and look around and it’s like, ‘What makes you think that you have to eat that way?’ Stewart said. “It’s so weird to see, to just notice how influenced people are by their friends, the media and just different things and are afraid of certain foods or very conscious about it.”
Margaret Wing-Peterson, an assistant professor in the department of family and consumer sciences at PLNU, said while she is excited that people are more concerned about what they eat, limiting what they eat because of misunderstandings about nutrition becomes unhealthy.
“The problem is it starts to go into, if my diet is pure, I am pure,” Wing-Peterson said. “So they start to use what they eat as a marker for their character… People would have a lot of self contempt or self loathing when they ‘fell off their diet’ and it’s like, no, you have to separate the food from the person. You’re still a worthy person just because you had whatever it was you said you were never going to have again. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or an evil person.”
Swann said food should not be used as a comfort, stress-releaser or method of control.
“Food is nutrition and energy for the body; it is not something to fix other emotional problems,” Swann said. “Recognizing food as fuel and energy and nutrition and not recognizing it as my friend or somebody that’s always there for me, a comfort.”
Swann said that she never takes on clients if they aren’t first involved in therapy because of additional factors to consider. Lambert reinforced this, saying the disorder is always about something more.
“It has nothing to do with food, and everything to do with self esteem, depression, anxiety, body image, things of that nature,” Lambert said.