Eating disorders: dietician talks triggers, signs and resources

Though there aren’t many known causes of eating disorders, it is certain that stress can be a significant factor for developing one.

According to clinical instructor and head of UBC’s dietetics program, Kara Vogt, students with tendencies towards unhealthy eating habits can be at risk for developing an eating disorder during their studies.

“Student life is really busy and stressful, and it’s a big period of transition in life, so it can leave people vulnerable to struggling with their eating,” she said.

It can be difficult to identify an eating disorder as a student, according to Vogt. But despite not having an official diagnosis, it is crucial to keep an eye out on “unhealthy relationship[s] with food.”

For students who notice obsessions with their food intake, such as compulsive calorie counting, restrictive dieting, regular binge eating or just a general need to have constant control over their eating, Vogt suggests there may be a form of eating disorder present.

The diagnoses of eating disorders are categorized into three broad categories: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and the catch-all category of eating disorders not otherwise specified. Despite this classification, however, individuals can experience features of multiple categories of the illness.

“I think that’s something that not everyone realizes -- those stigmas around diagnoses,” said Vogt. “People can still be suffering with a spectrum of disordered eating, even if they don’t have those official labels diagnosed by a physician.”

Another thing to look out for as a sign of risk for disordered eating is changes in mood, such as irritability, anxiousness and social withdrawal. According to Vogt, the way we deal with our emotions can greatly affect our relationships with food.

“Eating disorders are not always about food -- I know that sounds a bit funny,” she said. “Some warning signs for someone who might be struggling is if they’re having a difficult time coping with stress or emotions … controlling their food intake might be one way of managing [this].”

Of course, many of these emotional changes can come as a response to triggers in everyday life. Vogt pointed out academics, social pressures, self-realization and media influences as some of the major triggers affecting students.

If students are noticing signs of disordered eating, Vogt recommended drop-ins to the UBC Student Health or Counselling Services, where they can receive referrals to treatment programs.

“They’re a great first stop,” she said.

However, if students are looking for more immediate information on disordered eating and its treatment, Vogt suggests visiting the Kelty Mental Health or Looking Glass Foundation websites.

Kelty Mental Health offers many online resources, and information on how to get referred for any of the eating disorders programs in B.C.. The non-profit Looking Glass Foundation provides support groups and further information online.

Sending links to online resources like these can also be helpful in communicating concerns students may have about their friends’ eating habits. Gentle approaches to talking about disordered eating -- like using “I” statements -- work much better than accusatory or confrontational tactics, said Vogt.

According to Vogt, the most important step in identifying and tackling disordered eating is the process of self-reflection.

“When you notice you may be gravitating towards unhealthy behaviours, whether it’s eating or something else, just sort of step back and check in with yourself about what’s going on,” said Vogt.