Mind Over Matter: Students overcome eating disorders, social stigma

Megan Hix

Editor's Note: This is one part in a series about students and mental health. To check out the other stories, click here.

When nutrition and neurobiology senior Lauren Caton was a freshman in high school, she wanted to make the varsity soccer team — whatever the cost. For Caton, cutting calories and working out multiple times a day meant gaining a competitive edge on other players.

But instead of boosting her energy and efficiency, Caton’s behaviors grew more extreme and eventually landed her in the hospital for three weeks of outpatient care for EDNOS, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified.

“It’s a very slow descent, and before you know it, you’re too sucked in,” Caton said. “It wasn’t easy to face myself. That was the hardest thing [about recovery]: having to answer to the things you’ve done, changing how you view yourself and how you view food.”

Caton said she rarely discussed her eating disorder in high school. But when she came to UT, she decided to share her story with friends and found that a surprising number of people around her were struggling with or had recovered from their own eating disorders.

According to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders, most people who suffer from eating disorders — up to an estimated 95 percent — are women. Ninety-five percent of those with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25.8.

Caton said she thinks people only realize someone may be struggling with an eating disorder if they are extremely thin or overweight, something that keeps many people of average weights from getting help. If a friend is privately dealing with an eating disorder, Caton suggests talking to them about it, showing them available resources and most importantly, letting them know they can talk about it.

“People of varying different weights have eating disorders,” Caton said. “Weight is not an indicator of health. You could look healthy and have a disorder. That’s something I ran into when I came to college.”

In Caton’s case, she said working out and skipping meals were ways of controlling part of her life when other aspects seemed less manageable. 

“I was able to realize that it’s not about the image; it’s about the control,” Caton said. “When other parts of your life are going crazy, you can control what goes into your body. [In therapy,] I was able to channel that control into a healthier outlet. It was a hard shift, but I was able to eventually do that.” 

Dr. Annie Mahone, a dietitian at University Health Services, said eating disorders can stem from the media’s projection of thinness, a genetic predisposition or the pressure to be perfect. Generally, she said they are all “coping mechanisms” for anxiety, stress, depression or other internal factors.

“An eating disorder is not a choice,” Mahone said. “I think there’s a perception that people who are dealing with that can somehow choose to eat or not to eat, but that’s really not true at all. There are very bright people who struggle with an eating disorder, but the rational side just doesn’t always win out over the eating disorder thoughts that become very overpowering. It’s very difficult to change."

For many, overcoming an eating disorder can be a long and difficult battle. ANAD reports that 42 percent of first through third-graders want to be thinner. Social work senior Kate Peoples dealt with a variety of eating disorders for more than a decade. After starting college at UT in 2009, she took a break to get treatment and learned to find her identity outside of her disorder. 

“I think when I really started to commit myself to recovery, the hardest part was sitting through the discomfort of all of it and holding blind faith that it was going to get better,” Peoples said. “My anxiety was so much higher for such an extended period of time because [my eating disorder] was how I dealt with my anxiety. It was really a lesson to pick yourself up and move forward.”

Peoples said recovery is a “hard, but not linear, path.” It took her multiple attempts to get help before treatment actually stuck, but she said she is now fully recovered. 

“My body is going to be the way it is, and that’s fine because I’m healthy,” Peoples said. “The motivation wasn’t always there. You aren’t going to feel motivated all the time to do what you need to do in recovery, but you still need to do it. In some ways, it’s like writing a paper that you don’t want to write, but you’re like, ‘I’m going to write this because I’m not going fail."

While the University offers therapy and treatment through UHS’ Mindful Eating program and support groups, Peoples said she would like to see more proactive services on campus to help people before their behaviors spiral into a full-fledged disorder. Preventive care is something both Caton and Peoples hope to promote in their careers. After graduate school, Caton plans to research intervention and prevention of eating disorders. Peoples said her past led her to want to do advocacy work for those with eating disorders.

“I didn’t find out about resources until I was in crisis, and that’s obviously not an ideal time to find out about [them], but I think that’s a pretty common situation,” Peoples said. “It’s hard at such a big university, but I would love to see more education, events for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. We definitely have the capacity to do more.”

If you or someone you know would like to talk to someone about eating disorders or other mental health concerns, contact the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center at (512) 471-3515 or click here to find out more about CMHC's resources.