ATHENS, Ohio -- An overzealous approach to fitness can be harmful, says Dana Heller Levitt, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling and higher education at Ohio University, who has found new information on eating disorders, and a new approach to look at the problem.
"Someone who is obsessed with spending four hours a day in the gym to build muscle is no better off than someone who is obsessed with dieting. In other words, being obsessed with being "healthy" is actually not healthy, and can lead to larger problems," said Levitt.
Levitt said that many times, the disorder is not about food, but other reasons. "A disorder could marked be a drive for thinness, or a fear of being fat; one being a goal, and the other being driven by fear/avoidance. Eating disorders may be about control, depression, anxiety, stress, or numerous other issues that may not have anything to do with one's appearance or weight." Levitt says that it is also important to note that eating disorders have an increasing prevalence in men.
Levitt has spent her career studying the characteristics of eating disorders, what is involved and how the disorder is maintained.
From a study Levitt conducted with the Ohio University Eating Disorders Task Force, she found that, contrary to popular belief and research, college student athletic participation at the varsity level resulted in lower levels of eating disorders. This may be attributed to the athletes' finding more support in a team setting, or having more education on the topic and health issues surrounding eating disorders. "Students who are working out on their own, without the benefit of support and education, may be at increased risk for eating disorders."
Levitt primarily studies college-age women with eating disorders. "Approximately 70 percent of college women have some type of symptomology of a disorder, if not the actual disorder. Students who have these disorders in college either come to college with a disorder, are pre-disposed to them or develop them as a result of social influences," Levitt said. She is currently working on finding prevention strategies in middle schools, as cases of anorexia and bulimia and other forms of disordered eating and body image concerns have been increasingly found in younger children. Levitt hopes to find what some preventative factors are, and what helps to give those at risk a healthier sense of self.
According to Levitt, it is important to take a continuum approach to eating disorders. She said, "You can't look at these disorders as purely clinical problems. Less than 2-3 percent of the population suffers from the actual clinical disorders, but there are other who may begin suffering problematic symptoms that no one else notices."
Levitt stresses the importance of being educated about eating disorders. She said, "The eating disorders task force and efforts made by other professionals and offices on campus are impressive ways that Ohio University takes a proactive approach to helping students who may be experiencing symptoms of an eating disorder."
The Ohio University Multi-Disciplinary Eating Disorder Task Force is a group that addresses clinical needs and outreach, as well as education about eating disorders. The group participates in National Eating Disorders Awareness Week and brings speakers to campus to help educate students.
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