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For better or worse, college is generally thought of as one of the most free and fun times in a person’s life. The whole point of the experience is to learn new things and meet new people, and many college students take advantage of their newfound friends and freedom to participate in a partying lifestyle.
But these kinds of get togethers can cause a lot of problems for students with anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), binge eating disorder (BED), or other commonly diagnosed eating disorders; those who are struggling with disordered thoughts or behaviors; or those in recovery from these conditions.
Eating Disorder Risk Factors at College Parties
Eating disorders in college students may be more prevalent than people think. The average age of onset for these conditions is between 18 and 21 for both males and females, overlapping exactly with the time many people spend in college. [1,2]
Furthermore, a high prevalence of eating disorder symptoms, such as dietary restraint, binge eating, and purging has been noted among US college students. And those behaviors may be on the rise, with one study finding a 13% increase in the risk of developing an eating disorder in college between 2013 and 2021. [2, 3]
A potent cocktail of factors works to increase the odds of students experiencing eating disorders in college. But one of the biggest overall dangers is the types of activities and attitudes promoted by college parties.
Most students experience peer pressure to drink alcohol, do drugs, or at least go to a party at some point in their college career. In fact, one study found that students felt voicing concerns about alcohol consumption would make it harder for them to fit in at school. 
Feeling pressured to participate in parties may not directly cause eating disorders, but it could cause someone to drink more or more often than they normally would, which could increase their odds of participating in disordered eating behavior.
Outside pressure to participate in these events could also be particularly hard for those in eating disorder recovery, who may already be triggered by large social gatherings or otherwise be struggling to maintain a healthier lifestyle.
Getting caught up in the party scene can also negatively impact someone’s lifestyle, including their sleep schedule, work or studying schedule, and eating or exercise routine. This type of mental, physical, and emotional imbalance and irregularity could present a slippery slope to disordered eating behaviors.
A condition known as “drunkorexia” is also on the rise at colleges.  The condition is characterized by the use of purging behaviors, such as fasting, self-induced vomiting, or excessive exercise, to compensate for the calories consumed during a binge drinking episode, with many students wary of gaining weight from drinking too much or eating too much after a night of heavy drinking.
Related Unhelpful Behaviors
As well as binge drinking, there are some health-related behaviors associated with the college party lifestyle that also increase the risk of developing eating disorders, including: 
- Smoking cigarettes
- Smoking marijuana
- Using recreational drugs
These activities can help eating disorders develop by loosening someone’s inhibitions, and many of them activate the same neurological pathways associated with behaviors like binge eating.
Substance Use Disorder
Substance use disorder (SUD) has long been tied to eating disorders, particularly BN and BED. The link between the two is still not fully understood, though some biological and genetic connections between the conditions have been uncovered. 
And substance use disorder, including for alcohol and many types of illicit drugs, is notably on the rise across U.S. campuses. Researchers suggest that college represents a particularly vulnerable time for developing SUD, with the transition from adolescence to adulthood coinciding with the greater exposure to alcohol and drugs at parties. 
Pressure to “Look Good”
Other social pressures can have an impact on the likelihood of developing eating disorders in college, including the desire to fit in with classmates or join the world of sororities and fraternities.
One article on the subject detailed the pressure on freshman female college students specifically, finding them anxious about losing weight to be successful in a sorority rush. 
There is also the pressure to make new friends and embark on romantic relationships, as well as worries about gaining the “freshman 15,” the nickname for the common experience of gaining weight in the first year of college, which can serve as a particular risk factor for those in eating disorder recovery. 
Tips for Avoiding Risky Situations
Parties may introduce many risk factors for developing eating disorders, or at least encouraging unhealthy behaviors, but it is possible to avoid these traps.
One of the simplest ways to avoid many issues related to partying is to limit how much you drink. With the amount of peer pressure often involved on college campuses, this can be difficult, so it could be helpful to join a support group or talk to a counselor for more help. Setting and maintaining this boundary can help you enjoy going out without having to deal with many of the downsides.
But if you find it difficult to abstain from alcohol or drugs around other people who are participating, or if you’d rather not go out at all, there are plenty of other activities and opportunities on campus and beyond. Most schools have any number of clubs or groups, covering nearly every topic of interest, so finding one you enjoy can be a great way to build a group of friends who are above the influence.
Regardless, most colleges also offer some type of mental health treatment at their wellness centers. Speaking with a counselor or therapist can be a great way to help you stick to a healthier path.
Tips for Maintaining Recovery in College
If you’re in eating disorder recovery during college, it may feel even more difficult to maintain a positive and balanced lifestyle.
Still, it is possible to maintain your recovery during your years at school, and following these tips may help:
- Work with your treatment team. Prior to setting off for college, speak with your treatment team about any fears or concerns you may have. You can stay in touch with your team through telehealth applications, or you may want to book an appointment with a recommended therapist in the area to help you work through any issues and monitor your mental health.
- Make a meal plan. Research the food options available on campus and use this information to formulate a meal plan which has plenty of variety and will be easy to stick to. If you’re struggling to come up with a good plan, your treatment team may be able to help you.
- Have a back-up plan. Before leaving, establish a plan for what you can do to keep up your recovery efforts if you’re feeling stressed or concerned. You can think about coping strategies that have helped in the past, self-care techniques, or a list of positive affirmations that may be able to help.
- Be kind to yourself. Make time every day to indulge in some self-care to help boost your overall feelings of well-being. Writing in a journal, doing something creative, or going for a walk in nature can all help pick up your spirits and renew your sense of strength and balance.
- Join a support group. Talking to like-minded individuals going through similar issues can help create a sense of community and help you to feel less isolated when you’re struggling. Your school may even offer a support group on campus.
Finding Help for an Eating Disorder
The college environment can be tough on someone struggling with an eating disorder or someone in recovery from one of these mental health conditions. If you, a friend, or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder or showing warning signs of one, it’s important to seek out help.
Your college may have eating disorder specialists on campus. These experts are there to support college students, and may be able to help you with disordered eating and related concerns, like low self-esteem, or refer you to local treatment providers who may provide additional help.
If you’d rather not talk to someone face-to-face about these sensitive issues, there are a number of eating disorder hotlines you can also use. These services allow callers to remain anonymous, but will offer information and resources about eating disorder symptoms and treatment options.
Regardless, the most important aspect of getting better is seeking out help. It doesn’t matter where you start your journey, just that you’re ready to start building a healthier and happier future.
- Ward ZJ, Rodriguez P, Wright DR, Austin SB, & Long MW. (2019). Estimation of Eating Disorders Prevalence by Age and Associations With Mortality in a Simulated Nationally Representative US Cohort. JAMA Network Open, 2(10):e1912925.
- Daly M, & Costigan E. (2022). Trends in eating disorder risk among US college students 2013-2021. Psychiatry Research, 317:114882.
- Lipson SK, & Sonneville KR. (2017). Eating disorder symptoms among undergraduate and graduate students at 12 US colleges and universities. Eating behaviors, 24:81-88.
- Suls J, & Green P. (2003). Pluralistic ignorance and college student perceptions of gender-specific alcohol norms. Health Psychology, 22(5):479–486.
- Drunkorexia 101: Increasing alcohol’s effects through diet and exercise behaviors. (2016, June 27). ScienceDaily. Accessed May 2023.
- Eisenberg D, Nicklett EJ, Roeder K, & Kirz NE. (2011). Eating disorder symptoms among college students: prevalence, persistence, correlates, and treatment-seeking. Journal of American College Health, 59(8):700–707.
- Bahji A, Nadeem Mazhar M, Hudson CC, Nadkarni P, MacNeil BA, Hawken E. (2018). Prevalence of substance use disorder comorbidity among individuals with eating disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, 273:58-66.
- Welsh JW, Shentu Y, & Sarvey DB. (2019). Substance Use Among College Students. Focus, 17(2):117–127.
- Moore A. (2012, July 16) Prepping students for sorority rush. New York Times. Accessed May 2023
- Muniz H. (2022, January 19). Understanding eating disorders in college. BestColleges.com. Accessed May 2023.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published June 12, 2023, on EatingDisorderHope.com