Am I bulimic, or is it just a phase?

Originally Published: January 10, 2003 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 14, 2004
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Dear Alice,

I am a college freshman and I think I'm on my way to becoming bulimic. Since my junior year of high school, I have periodically binged and tried to purge, but I was never really successful and it was never frequent. My senior year I made myself semi-successfully throw up for the first time, but it was gross and scary and made my throat bleed and I stopped. However, since I've gotten to school this year, I feel like things have gotten out of control. I started out eating healthfully and losing weight, because I am about 15 pounds overweight and need to make a lower weight class for my sport. (I am at a high level and compete internationally.) I'm also terrified of the "freshman fifteen" since I've always been chubby at the least. I couldn't keep up my healthy eating and snapped, and now I binge all the time and for the past few weeks have been throwing up. I think I could stop but I'm not sure. Am I bulimic or just going through typical freshman food phase?

Thanks for any advice.

— Not sick... yet?

Dear Not sick... yet?,

You are smart to ask about this, since what may seem to be a phase can spiral into a harmful and even dangerous situation. It sounds as though you would benefit from help in working through the concerns you describe.

Some people who think they are establishing "healthy eating habits" are, in fact, being unrealistically restrictive. This is usually true when the "healthy diet" results in bingeing. Losing control over your eating becomes more dangerous when purging enters the picture. Purging is NOT an effective method of weight control!

Although you haven't discussed your sport, perhaps the weight you are trying to compete at may be unrealistic for you. Young women and men mature at different rates. An appropriate weight in 10th or 11th grade may no longer be appropriate, maintainable, or even healthy during college. You write that you have had these weight concerns since high school. Perhaps you've tried to maintain a weight that was too low for you, even then. How do you know you are 'overweight' for your sport? Has your coach, trainer, or team doctor told you so? Participating in certain sports that emphasize body size and weight can leave you at risk for developing disordered eating patterns, and, in some cases, eating disorders. Healthy, successful athletic competition at high levels takes a strong foundation of proper training, appropriate nutrition, and adequate rest. Bingeing and purging is neither a normal nor healthy way to establish competition weight.

Working with a registered dietitian could help you outline a healthy eating plan that will give you the strength and energy to support your athletic needs as well as to help you manage your body weight. Check to see if your college health service or athletic department offers this service. If not, perhaps the health service could arrange for a consultation or a referral. It is also a good idea to have a medical check-up by a health care provider to be sure you're physically healthy.

If you are a student at Columbia, you can call x4-2284 or log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment with a member of the Eating Disorders Team, a multidisciplinary treatment team of health care providers of Health Services at Columbia. You can also call x4-2878 to schedule a session at Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS).

In addition, it would be wise to visit the Counseling Service at your school to discuss your body image and other concerns. Again, if this service is not available on campus, your health service can assist you by providing an off-campus referral. Both work and support are needed to help you deal with the issues that show up with disordered eating or eating disorders. The sooner you begin the process, the better off you will be. And, you have already taken your first step.

It is difficult to identify and evaluate all of these by yourself. Asking for help, as you have done, will make you stronger.

Alice