UCF helps students fight eating disorders

Michelle Contreras from the Wellness and Health Promotion Services table holds therapy dog Cooper on Feb. 25 at the UCF Loves EveryBODY event.

Students snacked on yogurt parfaits — a healthy snack that can easily fit into the busy lives of students — at the UCF Health Center as UCF Student Health Services dietitians Preeti Wilkhu and Astrid Volpert explained how eating disorders and disordered eating patterns can manifest on college campuses.

The workshop called Ask a Dietitian was part of UCF's lineup for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which ran from Feb. 25 through March 3, according to NEDA's website.

Multiple UCF departments and organizations including Student Health Services, Counseling and Psychological Services and Wellness and Health Promotion Services collaborated to recognize NEDA Week, said UCF communications coordinator Rachel Williams.

The collaboration of resources is an important part of the treatment UCF provides for its students, Wilkhu said. 

According to the organization Eating Disorder Hope, 32 percent of female students and 25 percent of male students struggled from some kind of eating disorder in 2016.

Wilkhu said college is the “perfect platform” for eating disorders to develop because the social pressures that come along with college can push students into a "deep, dark place where it's very hard — not impossible — but very hard to get out.”

With high numbers of students with eating disorders, having a plan for how to treat students struggling throughout the year is crucial, according to Eating Disorder Hope. 

"Known as the Eating Disorder Management Team, professionals from Student Health Services, Counseling and Psychological Services and Wellness and Health Promotion Services have joined forces to best serve this population of students and ensure they are connected with the help and resources they need," Williams said.

This inter-departmental group of medical providers, dietitians, therapists and psychiatrists helps students maintain healthy diets and treat their physical health. It also provides students with counseling and psychological treatment, as eating disorders are caused by both psychological and biological factors, according to the National Eating Disorder Association.

Steven Burroughs, UCF medical education instructor and registered dietitian, said because eating disorders affect both the body and mind, treatment must take both factors into consideration.

“The effective treatment for eating disorders is a two-part process including nutrition and underlying psychological issues," Burroughs said. "Focusing on ... diet, mental health and the physical body all helps to address the important factors that young people with eating disorders face."

Treatment programs are important on college campuses because the stresses that college students face put them at risk for eating disorders, Burroughs said.

“Academic environment, social pressure and the unknown future all have a major effect on nutrition status," Burroughs said.

Kristen Pizzo, senior writing and rhetoric major and president of the UCF branch of Project HEAL, a program helping students with eating disorders find treatment and support systems, said being away from home can heighten a student's risk of developing eating disorders.

Pizzo said it helped that her parents were around to watch what she ate when she began treatment for her eating disorder 10 years ago. Many college students living away from home do not have family members nearby to watch their eating patterns.

Pizzo said for NEDA Week, she wanted to plan “attention-grabbing events to let people know that something like [Project HEAL] exists on campus.”

The program's UCF branch organized an event called "Diets Don’t Work: Change My Mind," which Pizzo said was a play on a popular meme aimed to raise awareness of the harmful effects of dieting.

UCF's NEDA Week events also included UCF Loves EveryBODY — an outdoor event that included a photo booth to promote self-love, tables with representatives from departments and programs available to students and Cooper, a therapy dog who visits the UCF Health Center twice a year.

At the event, WHPS Multimedia Designer Michelle Contreras and Social Media Coordinator Regin Mantuano told students about WHPS' services for students struggling with eating disorders. Yvonne Garriga from Student Health Services informed students about the university's dietitians and eating disorder support groups.

NEDA Week at UCF also included a Zumba class at the Recreation and Wellness Center. Carlos Torres, junior emerging media major on the character animation track, attended the class and said Zumba helps him manage his eating patterns which often become disordered due to his time-oriented major. He said he is especially conscious of his body and its needs on days when he regularly exercises.

"If I came [to Zumba] without eating, I would probably faint," Torres said.

However, Pizzo said certain types of exercise, such as Zumba, may not be beneficial for everyone during NEDA Week since over-exercising can be part of body dysmorphic disorder. Excessive exercise often exists in tandem with eating disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Despite this, Pizzo said she was happy overall with UCF's events raising awareness about eating disorders. She also emphasized that people with different conditions require different types treatments.

For students requiring more “round-the-clock” treatment than UCF's out-patient treatment, the university can recommend nearby in-patient facilities, Wilkhu said.

Volpert and Wilkhu said they hope to create awareness and help students understand how to incorporate healthy choices into their daily life. Volpert pointed out that eating healthy can be as simple as putting fruit in a cup of yogurt on your way out the door.

Click here for more information about UCF's Eating Disorder Management Team and other university resources.

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