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CU Boulder has higher rate of eating disorders compared to other colleges, report says

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Hype spread throughout the aesthetically attractive city of Boulder after the release of the most recent 2011 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Boulder beat out most other cities across the nation, ranking number five (and number one in 2010) for "overall well-being." Mirror, mirror, on the wall, is Boulder truly among the fairest cities of them all?

Apparently, conceptions of what constitutes "well-being" are in the eyes of the beholder, as well as organizations assessing the human condition. In light of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (Feb 27-Mar. 3), Westword dug up some statistics that draw a different conclusion about Boulder's "healthy image."

In January, the same month the Gallup-Healthways report was released, the American College Health Association issued a study of its own -- this one about mental health disorders among college students. According to the 2011 ACHA assessment, the University of Colorado-Boulder reported nearly triple the national average of eating disorders among women compared to other college campuses, with the number of men at almost double the national average.

Data from the report:

National Average: -Within the last twelve months, diagnosed or treated by a professional for Anorexia: Men (0.4 percent), women (1.1 percent), overall (0.9 percent) -Within the last twelve months, diagnosed or treated by a professional for Bulimia: Men (0.4 percent), women (1.1 percent), overall (0.9 percent)

CU-Boulder Undergraduates: -Within the last twelve months, diagnosed or treated by a professional for Anorexia: Men (1.0 percent), women (2.7 percent), overall (2.0 percent) -Within the last twelve months, diagnosed or treated by a professional for Bulimia: Men (0.0 percent), women (2.7 percent), overall (1.6 percent)

The buffsecret.com website is an open forum allowing CU students to anonymously post their secrets and receive feedback from other users. One student shared this: "Boulder has stripped me of all confidence."

Another user replied, "I know exactly what you mean! Boulder is so ridiculous! Whenever I go anywhere but here I feel like a supermodel, but in this town I'm treated like nothing."

"If you do not have a resting heart-rate of forty you are considered out of shape in Boulder...people have ridiculous standards with an air of smug," another user posted. "The mix does not tend to generate a lot of random compliments."

CU-Boulder eating disorder specialists say Boulder may be a ripe environment for eating disorders because of its social characteristics: Boulder is know to be health-conscious and fitness-oriented.

Anne Schuster, health communications coordinator at CU, describes a few factors that might contribute to CU's higher rate of eating disorders. "The heavy emphasis on health and fitness could contribute to an interest in dieting or trying to look a certain way," she says. "Boulder itself is definitely known for being health conscious, and that can be a kind of pressure living here."

Schuster explains that those factors alone aren't enough for the onset of an eating disorder, but they can be taken to extremes in the presence of one. She adds that an eating disorder could manifest once the student arrives at CU as a result of the environment's characteristics (e.g. Boulder's heightened health awareness). Or the disorder might already present before the student arrives.

"Our statistics have been consistent for a number of years. It maybe speaks of the environments people are coming from," she says. "So either the state we live in maintains this health status not to be obese, or appearances and things like that are also great from the states we're drawing from."

CU's registered dietician Jane Reagan, says "Boulder may attract a certain type of person" with a "Type-A personality" -- ambitious, aggressive, controlling, highly competitive -- that may be prone to an eating disorder. She explains, "A lot of elite athletes come to Boulder to practice, because we're at 5,000 feet.... It may be one who believes in being close to the outdoors and nature and exercise and health. And because there is a value put on that and an emphasis put on that, it's possible it could be taken to its extreme."

Reagan says eating disorders tend to spike in a person's life during the transition from high school to college. "An eating disorder is not necessarily about the food. It's more of a coping mechanism and it's one of the biggest transitions in one life," she says. "Especially if they are going out-of-state to a new school, a new culture, people they don't know. They're having to be faced with new situations all the time where they have to adapt, and so they have to develop some type of coping mechanism. So they fall into eating disordered patterns more easily."

In terms of eating disorder treatment and prevention, Reagan says Wardenburg Health center, the primary healthcare facility for CU students has a "three-prong approach" to help students suffering from an eating disorders: (1) An eating disorder coordinator who is a psychologist, (2) a medical clinic with doctors specializing in eating disorders, and (3) a registered dietician.

She says students in need of a higher level of care for treatment are referred to extended-stay and out-patient programs like La Luna Center in Boulder and the Eating Disorder Center of Denver.

"For some students it's really taken hold of their life," Reagan says. "It's impacting their relationships, their studies and all areas of their life. So sometimes [Wardenburg] isn't enough of an intense program."

More from our News archive: "Boulder Youth Body Alliance: Teens to lobby Congress to improve eating-disorders treatment."

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