Understanding the dangers of eating disorders

Eating disorders are surrounded by misconceptions and confusion, but this does not have to be the case.

Ashli Sharpton, a post-doctoral intern at TU’s Counseling & Psychological Services Center, recently shared a wealth of knowledge about eating disorders. Often, people do not realize how dangerous eating disorders (EDO) can be, and that is a focus of Sharpton’s research.

“EDO have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder,” she  said. “They can cause numerous physical and mental health problems, including heart problems; gastrointestinal issues; problems with your hair, teeth and nails; and tend to occur alongside other mental health issues like anxiety, depression and substance abuse.”

Often EDO are associated with shame and stigma, so many people suffering from them try to keep the information to themselves. But EDO are nothing to feel ashamed about, according to Sharpton, there are many ways to intervene.

“Moderation, self-compassion and the ability to listen to your body are what I would recommend as ways to practice good health,” she said. “Food is not good or bad; some foods give you more nutrients and some give you less, but everything is okay in moderation and provides fuel for your body. You’re not going to ruin your health or gain a lot of weight if you have pizza or cake once in a while.”

When it comes to best-practices with food, she added, “Listen to your body because it generally knows what it needs and sometimes we get in our own way. We have hunger and satiety cues for a reason, so if you’re hungry, eat. If you’re full, stop eating. It sounds very simple, but when people start dieting or trying to change their eating habits drastically, those things can get lost.”

While anyone can be affected by eating disorders, athletes are more likely to suffer from EDO because of their participation in a sport based on performance and often physical fitness. This extra pressure to look and perform well can manifest in an EDO.

At The University of Tulsa, coaches understand this potential issue and work to prevent it from becoming a problem.

Kevin Harris, head coach of the Golden Hurricane rowing team, explained how health is managed in a sport that requires the athletes to weigh in before a competition.

I don’t ever conduct weigh-ins and I rarely, if ever, discuss actual numbers with the individual athletes,” Harris said. “One of our female strength or athletic training staff conducts the weigh-ins and the trainer then sends me the numbers. We also have a dietician available if people have concerns they would like to address.”

While EDO are potentially fatal if not properly treated, TU is taking mindful steps through research and student support to prevent them among its athletes.