Eating Disorders in College

Eating disorders are prevalent among college students. The transition from home to college is characterized by the loss of direct parental support and decreased structure. For some individuals this will provoke feeling of stress, which, depending on the individual, will be expressed in different ways.

Feelings of loneliness, uncertainty about the future, and fear are all a part of growing into adulthood. However, for youngsters who are genetically predisposed to suffer from an eating disorder, these stressful events can act as the environmental trigger needed for the eating disorder to develop.

For a student who suffered from an eating disorder prior to college, the lack of external guidance away from the home environment can be detrimental to recovery. Without strict recovery protocols in place, eating disorders can flourish and for some, the potential for relapse is high. Here is information on going to college when in recovery from an eating disorder.

Additional stressors of college can include more rigorous course requirements, socializing and making new friends, homesickness, and increased independence and daily responsibilities. Stress, regardless of the source, can fuel disordered eating behavior of all kinds; binge eating and calorie restriction are both indications that an individual is in a precarious psychological state of being.

Anorexia nervosa, a condition in which an individual becomes obsessed with reducing body weight, is a disorder with a biological basis. This means that external factors such as going to college alone cannot cause it. However, in those individuals who are genetically predisposed, the additional stress can act as a trigger for the disorder. The same is true for bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, however, because the individual continues to eat when suffering from these forms of eating disorders, detection and diagnosis can be even more difficult.

A college student can look perfectly normal on the outside and still be suffering from these potentially deadly disorders. If you are a parent or a friend of someone who you believe may be suffering from an eating disorder, it is important that you help them find treatment. Here are the signs and symptoms to look for.

Body Image in College

It is undeniable that there is a certain pressure on young people to look and act in a particular way. This pressure is definitely alive on college campuses. While body image pressure alone cannot cause a person to develop an eating disorder, it can act as a triggering external factor for individuals who are genetically predisposed to having one.

Many people are not even aware that they have an eating disorder because eating disorder behaviors can be accepted as normal on college campuses. This is especially true for young women, as there exists an accepted cultural bias for thinness. Dieting and cleansing are common practices and have been accepted as a social norm over eating a varied and balanced diet containing plenty of fats, carbohydrates and proteins.

Even for students who realize that they have an eating disorder, it can be very difficult for them to seek help. Eating disorders have a strong psychological element, and can deceive the sufferer into feeling that they are dependent on the disordered eating behavior. The praise that some individuals receive for being underweight can also add to the problem and be a severe barrier to recovery.

Fear and shame are additional factors that make it hard for college students to seek treatment. Many people are scared to admit having an eating disorder because they fear rejection or feel embarrassed about it. College students in particular may avoid admitting that they have a problem for fear that they will be thrown out of college or placed in a mental institution. It should be noted that these illnesses do not only affect females, and males of college age are also known to develop them.

Treatment and College

Colleges provide health and counseling services where students can go for help. They should provide students with information to help educate them about eating disorders, as well as be able to refer students in need to the relevant healthcare professional. Most college health centers also provide psychological, medical, and nutritional counseling.

If a student has a history of disordered eating behavior, but not a diagnosed eating disorder before attending college, there is a greater risk that the transition from home to college will exacerbate the problem. Parents and friends are advised to be on the lookout for signs of a problem related to food consumption. In the case of students who are already in recovery from an eating disorder, the college should have an infrastructure in place to help them continue on the path of recovery. If a student already at college is concerned that he or she has an eating disorder, they should contact the health services in place at their school without delay.

The most important thing for students with eating disorders is that they receive the support that they need. As with any physical or mental health condition, treatment is a part of getting well again. Recovery should be a priority for students who suffer from eating disorders, as a malnourished body and brain cannot study and absorb information optimally. Good nutrition is highly important in order to achieve good grades. In many cases, students who are struggling with eating disorders may be better off returning home for treatment, even if this means putting college on hold for a time. Education is important, but physical and mental health should always be the priority.

 Additional Reading:

Transitioning to College When in Recovery From an Eating Disorder
Eating Disorder College Contracts
Young Adults With Anorexia: Not Too Old For Family Therapy
Sororities and Eating Disorders


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Written by Tabitha Farrar – 2014