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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 04/12/2011

Eating disorders and the college food scene

When I was reporting this week’s “Eat, Drink and Be Healthy” column about college dining services, I asked for input from current college students. One young woman who responded was Laura Yochelson, a 21-year-old senior at American University.

Yochelson, who lives in Bethesda, came to campus without the traditional worries about the freshman 15. She had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at age 13 and, after a recovery, relapsed at age 15.

By the time she started college, she was again in recovery. In choosing her college, she told me on the phone, she didn’t really think about the food; she had received a scholarship and placement in an honors program at AU, so that’s where she ended up.

But she found life on campus challenging. The campus culture, she felt, was all about fitting in — and that included some peer pressure to eat more, and not necessarily healthful, food. “There was pressure to fit in, live a typical college life, eat typical college food,” Yochelson says.

But, she adds, “I was nervous. I didn’t want to stick out as anorexic or difficult. I just didn’t feel supported.”

Yochelson ended up leaving campus after her first semester and moved back home. She expects to graduate from AU in December, having continued her studies online and as a commuter. “I made a decision to use school to help myself, to learn to respect my body,” she says. “I couldn’t make it work with the food and social atmosphere” on campus.

It would have been “really cool,” Yochelson says, if she could have been open about her condition and found a support group to help. But it would have been even better if she could have found such a group that didn’t depend on people identifying themselves or their disorders — “a separate support group for healthy habits, like going on walks together,” she explains.

But, she admits, American University wasn’t really aware that she had a problem. I asked Maralee Csellar, a spokeswoman for the university, about the services that are available to students such as Yochelson.

She noted that, like most campuses, AU has both a health center (mostly for physical illness such as the flu) and a counseling center (mostly for help with psychological issues). The counseling center also makes information about coping with various aspects of campus life available online. And as is the case at many colleges, Csellar says, an off-campus referral service is available for students seeking counseling but not wishing, as she puts it, “to be seen walking through the doors of the counseling center.”

But as of a few years ago, the campus has also had a wellness center, which offers information, workshops and programs to help students learn to manage stress and live more healthfully overall.

That sounds like just what Yochelson was looking for. But while she was aware that the wellness center existed, she says it didn’t really seem to fit her needs at the time. “I felt very disconnected,” she says. “I don’t want to blame the school. A lot of it was personal choice,” not to further explore campus resources.

Today, Yochelson says, “I’m much more open.” She’s writing a book about her experience, and she is majoring in health promotion, in part so she can help other people who find themselves in situations similar to hers.

College students should be aware, Csellar says, that “sometimes it’s just a matter of asking. But that can be hard for a freshman making the transition from high school to college.”

Have you had an experience similar to Laura Yochelson’s? If you have — or have had — an eating disorder, how have you dealt with it while living on campus?

By  |  07:00 AM ET, 04/12/2011

 
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