Stress-Related Factors that Influence Eating Disorder Development in the College-Aged Student

College student

A college-aged student is particularly vulnerable when it comes to the development of eating disorders. [1] This makes perfect sense, as there are many added pressures and stressors that the transition from high school to college can bring. When these stressors are coupled with the underlying genetic vulnerability-it becomes the perfect storm in regards to the development of an eating disorder.

According to an article by The Walden Center for Education and Research, “40% of female college students have eating disorders and 91% of female college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting.” [2] Additionally, the article states that, “while recent information is not available, experts say the incidence of eating disorders among college students who are males is also increasing.” [3]

Stressors for a College-Aged Student

The initial transition from home to the college environment is the first major stressor that can lead to the development on an eating disorder for some individuals. Tabitha Farrar exemplified this point when she stated, “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.” [4] An eating disorder often serves as a maladaptive coping strategy for numbing uncomfortable feelings. Therefore, it makes sense that this major life transition could lead to an individual turning to disordered behaviors in an attempt to cope with what they are experiencing.

College Student 15584__269x180Like other mental illnesses-eating disorders are believed to be caused by a combination of an underlying genetic predisposition and subsequent environmental stressors. [5] Farrer stated, “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.” [6]

Other college-related stressors that could contribute to the development on an eating disorder (in someone with the genetic predisposition) include having to make new friends, missing home, increased independence, challenging coursework, and coping with a new environment.

Additionally, college-aged individuals may start dieting in an attempt to avoid “the freshman fifteen,” which could also lead to disordered eating and eating disorders.

New Eating Habits in College

Further, eating habits and patterns may change when an individual transitions to college, which can be another stressor or trigger for the development of an eating disorder. Robin Boudette Ph.D. and Anne McEeneaney, Ph.D, exemplified this point in when they stated, “For most students, there are significant changes in how they eat when they go to college.

cafeteriaFor many, eating in a dining hall, or in one’s own apartment, puts them, usually for the first time, solely in charge of what they eat when. For some this can be difficult, and can result in either overeating (because there is access to so many choices at each meal) or undereating (because of fear of the quantity of food or of not knowing how it is prepared).

If students then get overly concerned about minor weight changes, they may be unable to resume regular eating from a range of foods, and move to developing either disordered eating, or an eating disorder.” [7]

Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, NCC, clinical director of Eating Recovery Center’s Adult Partial Hospitalization Program, stated that “For many young adults, the pressures of the first semester of college can create the perfect storm for eating disorders development, and it’s easy for teens to hide behaviors from their families – particularly if they go to school far away from home.

Many parents won’t see the outcome of this devastating development until their children return home for winter break.” [8]

Early Intervention

We know from the research that early intervention is incredibly important in regards to positive eating disorder recovery outcomes. [9] Therefore, if you are a college-aged student and suspect that you may have an eating disorder it is so important that you reach out for help.

College-Aged StudentIf you are a loved one to a college-aged student who you believe may be struggling with an eating disorder-it is critical that you discuss this with them in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way.

No one chooses to have an eating disorder, but they can choose to reach out for help and to start working towards recovery. While stressors abound in college-it is definitely possible and important to seek help if you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder.

About the author:

Jennifer Rollin photo

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a therapist, body-image activist, and writer who specializes in working with adolescents, body image concerns, survivors of trauma, and mood disorders. Jennifer is a blogger for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, as well as a contributing writer for Eating Disorder Hope. For body-positive, self-love, inspiration, “like” her on Facebook at Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW.


[1]: Eating disorders among college students (n.d.). Retrieved from
[2]: Eating disorders among college students (n.d.). Retrieved from
[3]: Eating disorders among college students (n.d.). Retrieved from
[4]: Farrar, T. (2014). Eating disorders in college. Retrieved from
[6]: Farrar, T. (2014). Eating disorders in college. Retrieved from
[7]: Boudette, R., & Slocum, A. (n.d.) 10 things to know about eating disorders and college life. Retrieved from
[8]: Eating disorders identified in college freshman as they return home for winter break. (2011). Retrieved from
[9]: Rogers’ specialists emphasize importance of providing multi-modal treatment for eating disorders. (2013). Retrieved from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer 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.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 31, 2016
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.