International students often have difficulty adapting to continental dishes. Maintaining normal weight while studying abroad can be a challenge. Little wonder that many international students are usually afraid of gaining weight. Some think that skipping meals can make them maintain normal body weight. Thus, the need to know the effects of eating disorders on international students and learn how to control them.
Eating disorders are characterized by extreme disturbances in eating behaviours and related thoughts and feelings. People with eating disorders experience an overwhelming drive to be in certain body shape. This is because they have a morbid fear of gaining weight and losing control over eating. There can be very serious physical and psychological consequences on international students if eating disorders are left untreated.
Types of Eating Disorders
Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. Often, people don’t fit neatly into one of these categories but still fulfil the criteria for eating disorders.
People experiencing bulimia go on regular eating “binges,” which involves consuming large amounts of food at relatively discrete periods of time. It is usually accompanied by feelings of being out of control of one’s food intake. Bingeing may be used as a way of coping with anger, depression, stress and sadness. Binge eating is followed by feelings of guilt and anxiety about becoming fat. This results in a need to get rid of the food. Common ways of compensating for binging include “throwing up,” over-exercising, taking laxatives, diuretics or diet pills and skipping meals.
Some Common Symptoms of Bulimia include:
- Eating unusually large amounts of food.
- Being secretive about what is eaten and when.
- Visiting the bathroom after eating (to vomit).
- Over-exercising, even exercising when injured or unwell.
- Being very critical of one’s self.
- Feeling moody, depressed, regularly tired/lacking energy.
- Sore throat, decaying teeth.
- Weight going up and down all the time, or large weight gains.
People with anorexia nervosa may see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. People with anorexia nervosa typically weigh themselves repeatedly and are severely strict about the amount of food they eat. They often exercise excessively, and/or may force themselves to through up or use laxatives to lose weight. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of mental disorder. While many people with this disorder die from complications associated with starvation, others die of suicide.
People with anorexia have an intense desire to lose weight and be thin. Although people with anorexia are usually underweight, they generally believe that they are overweight. Food, weight and appearance become extremely important. They also deliberately maintain a very low, unhealthy body weight and, if female, often have absent menstrual cycles. Concentrating on food and weight becomes a way of managing intense emotions or emotional difficulties that they are experiencing.
Some Common Symptoms of Anorexia include:
- Being afraid of putting on weight.
- Calorie counting, and/or obsessively avoiding high-fat food.
- Losing lots of weight in a short space of time.
- Being hungry but not wanting to admit it.
- Over-exercising and obsessive weighing.
- Getting cold easily and wearing baggy clothing.
- Irregular (or absent) menstrual cycles.
- Brittle nails and hair, dry and yellow skin.
- Preference for eating alone or only eating around other people.
- Feeling depressed and irritable.
People with binge-eating disorder lose control over their eating. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge-eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. As a result, people with binge-eating disorder are often overweight or obese. Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the U.S.
- Eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, such as a 2-hour period.
- Taking in food even when you’re full or not hungry.
- Fast consumption of food during binge episodes.
- Eating until you’re uncomfortably full.
- Maintaining secrecy when eating to avoid embarrassment.
- Feeling distressed, ashamed, or guilty about your eating.
- Frequently dieting, possibly without weight loss.
What Causes Eating Disorders?
There is no clear cause for eating disorders. Eating disorders are probably a result of a combination of factors working together. These factors could include any or all of the following:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual trauma.
- Cultural emphasis or preoccupation with body image ideals and slimness.
- Relationships with peers and family.
- Loss and grief.
- Brain chemistry and genetic factors.
- Stress and low self-esteem.
- A feeling of lack of control over one’s life.
Other factors include:
- Biological: Biological abnormalities, such as hormonal irregularities or genetic mutations. These may be associated with compulsive eating and food addiction.
- Psychological: A strong correlation has been established between depression and binge eating. Body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and difficulty coping with feelings can also contribute to binge eating disorder.
- Social and Cultural: Traumatic situations, such as a history of sexual abuse, can increase the risk of binge eating. Social pressures to be thin, which are typically influenced through media, can trigger emotional eating. Persons subject to critical comments about their bodies or weight may be especially vulnerable to binge eating disorder.
Effects of Eating Disorders
If left untreated, severe anorexia and bulimia can be life-threatening. However, the physical effects are generally reversible if the disorder is treated early. Some effects of eating disorders on international students include:
- Harm to the kidneys and strain on most body organs.
- Urinary tract infections and damage to the colon.
- Dehydration, constipation and diarrhoea.
- Seizures, muscle spasms or cramps (resulting from chemical imbalances).
- Loss of menstruation or irregular periods as well as chronic indigestion.
Many effects of anorexia are related to malnutrition, including:
- Severe sensitivity to the cold.
- Growth of down-like hair all over the body.
- Inability to think rationally and to concentrate.
Severe bulimia is likely to cause:
- Erosion of dental enamel from vomiting.
- Swollen salivary glands.
- The possibility of a ruptured stomach.
- Chronic sore throat and gullet.
Emotional and Psychological Effects
Some other effects of eating disorders on international students include:
- Difficulties with activities which involve food.
- Loneliness, due to self-imposed isolation and a reluctance to develop personal relationships.
- Fear of the disapproval of others if the illness becomes known. This is tinged with the hope that family and friends might intervene and provide assistance.
- Mood swings, changes in personality, emotional outbursts or depression.
Effects of Eating Disorders on Body Organs
The longer we continue to starve, binge, purge, over-exercise, etc., the more our body suffers.
Food restriction and purging dehydrate the body, throwing off electrolyte levels, which leads to decreased muscle function. The heart is a muscle, and its ability to function properly depends on electrolyte balance. Not functioning well for a long time can cause heart disease, heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats), cardiomyopathy (weakening heart). It can also cause muscle weakness that can border on paralysis, and tetany (involuntary muscle contractions). All of these side effects can be fatal, especially when the conditions are prolonged and chronic.
Eating disorders also affect a female’s ability to become and remain pregnant. If women with a history of anorexia get pregnant, they have higher rates of miscarriage and lower infant birth. Being unable to conceive in her reproductive years, a woman may end up living without the children she wanted. This is also one of the effects of eating disorders on international students.
During prolonged malnourishment, the body’s organs begin to shut down due to lack of nutrients and caloric energy. When the brain doesn’t get enough nutrition, it loses brain matter. The white matter returns when weight and nutrition are restored, but the grey brain matter does not. These deficits may not be clinically evident initially but may be associated with long-term effects on cognitive functioning and the ability to concentrate (Sidiropoulos, 2007). The neurological consequences may worsen the longer someone struggles with an eating disorder. In many people, cognitive dysfunction begins in older age.
Treatments and Therapies
It is important to seek treatment early for eating disorders. People with eating disorders are at higher risk for medical complications. People with eating disorders can have other mental disorders (such as depression or anxiety) or problems with substance use. Complete recovery is possible. Treatment plans are tailored to individual needs and may include one or more of the following:
- Individual, group, and/or family psychotherapy.
- Medical care and monitoring.
- Nutritional counselling.
There’s a type of psychotherapy such as a family-based therapy called the Maudsley approach. Here parents of adolescents with anorexia nervosa assume the responsibility for feeding their child. This appears to be very effective in helping people gain weight and improve eating habits and moods. To reduce or eliminate binge-eating and purging behaviours, people may undergo cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is another type of psychotherapy. It helps a person learn how to identify distorted or unhelpful thinking patterns, recognize and change inaccurate beliefs.
Evidence also suggests that medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers may also be helpful for treating eating disorders. They are also helpful for other co-occurring illnesses such as anxiety or depression.
Eating disorders are considered to be a disease of young women because they account for the majority living with it. However, girls and boys with eating disorders grow up, and as they do, only half of them report recovery. Understanding the effects of eating disorders on international students will help you maintain good eating habits and general well being. While studying, remember that your health is of paramount importance, so endeavour to take good care of yourself.
Where to go for help
- Contact Student Services to see a student counsellor
- See your GP
- Call Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800