Eating Disorders During College

Wednesday, Jan 26  •  


Throughout the college experience, the pressure to succeed, a busy schedule, and a need to keep up appearances can lead to unhealthy eating habits and even eating disorders. It is important to be aware of the signs of an eating disorder and seek help if you or someone you know is struggling.

Over a 13 year period, a group of researchers questioned and studied students on an American college campus and found that eating disorders increased from 23 to 32% among females and from 7.9 to 25% among males. These numbers were totaled in 2011. This was over 10 years ago and we can only imagine how these percentages have increased in that time.

College Campuses and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are caused by a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors, however, some aspects specific to the college experience may contribute to the development of eating disorders.

  • Transition: The college years are a time of change and transition for students. They are away from home for the first time, living on their own, and often meeting new people. This newfound independence and exposure to different lifestyles can be overwhelming and contribute to feelings of insecurity or inadequacy.
  • Student Dining: Gone are the days of home-cooked meals and mom’s cooking. College students now have to navigate a cafeteria or dining hall with endless options. Having such a wide variety of options can be overwhelming and lead to overeating. If overeating occurs, guilt may step in and lead to purging. For some students, the cafeteria is only available at certain times of the day or they may be on a budget for food. If students miss that open window or worry about spending money on food, they may begin habits of skipping meals and not eating altogether.
  • Sororities/Fraternities: Whether students are trying to make friends or are trying to join a fraternity/sorority, there seems to be a certain standard held by these groups. Working to fit in with these groups often means meeting physical expectations. Oftentimes, extreme measures are taken to reach these expectations.

Warning Signs

It can be difficult to determine whether a friend or loved one has an eating disorder, however, some warning signs may suggest someone is struggling. If someone is exhibiting any of the following signs, it is important to reach out for help:

  • Skipping meals or eliminating food groups to lose weight
  • Constant thoughts of food and/or your body
  • Fear of eating with peers or in the dining hall
  • Exercising more than one hour a day (unless for sports conditioning) or not being able to take days off exercise without feeling guilty
  • Eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time and feeling out of control while doing so
  • Purging
  • Rapid weight loss

If you are a parent whose child is away at school, it may be difficult to recognize if your child is suffering from an eating disorder. If they come home, however, and there is a noticeable weight loss, having a conversation about the noticeable loss may be helpful.

Options for Students with Eating Disorders

If you are a college student who is struggling with an eating disorder, there are options available to you. Eating disorders should be treated by a multidisciplinary team consisting of a therapist, a dietician, and a medical professional. Some school campuses have eating disorder specialists and specialist teams on campus encompassing these three disciplines. More often, college counseling centers only provide short-term counseling, referring many students who need eating disorder care out to providers in the community.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or any form of mental illness, please reach out to your school’s counseling center or health center for help. They can help you or direct you to someone who can. There are also national organizations that offer resources and support, such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) or The Jed Foundation.