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Starting College and the Risk of Eating Disorders

Article contributed by Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC and Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

The beginning of fall typically commemorates the onset of a new school year, with students of all ages embarking on a fresh journey of academics, social activities, sports, friendships and more.  While this transition can often signify an exciting time in the life of any individual, it can also be associated with feelings of stress, anxiety, uneasiness, chaos and the like.

Transitional periods have often been identified as triggers in those who may be struggling with an eating disorder, and students are not exempt from the vulnerabilities that may be experienced as they start the school year.  While the transition to school can be a time of susceptibility for students of all ages, young men and women making the transition to college experience even greater challenges, including relocation, leaving home, increased independence and responsibility, separation from close friends and family, and the pressure for social acceptance and approval.

How exactly are college students impacted by eating disorders?  The following statistics give greater insight into the challenges that college students are facing:

  • It is estimated that clinical eating disorders affect ten to twenty percent of female university students and four to ten percent of male university students [1,2].
  • According to a semi-annual survey conducted by the American College Health Association, forty-four percent of college women are dieting to lose weight and twenty-seven percent of college men are dieting to lose weight [3].
  • Research has also shown that students coming into college have already experienced a distorted body image [4].
  • Collegiate athletes have an increased risk for developing eating disorders compared to non-collegiate athletes [5].

Eating disorders among college students are likely much higher than numbers report, largely due to lack of support, awareness, intervention, and treatment.  Acknowledging the challenges that you or your child may be facing while transitioning to college is an important step in cultivating awareness and prevention.

While many college campuses are responding to the need for eating disorder support with improved mental health services, there are several steps that can be taken before the transition to school is even made.  As a college student or the family of a college student, here are some proactive actions that can be taken to make for a smoother shift back to school:

  1.  Establish a Support System:  The lack of accountability and support can make it easier to become isolated, especially if struggling.  Before even leaving for school, be sure to know who you can rely on as part of your support system.  Whether its family or close friends, having individuals you can confide in, particularly in times of need, will help you create a strong foundation of support.
  2. Know your limits:  College life offers exciting possibilities and new ways to become involved, including clubs, sports, academics, and more.  Allow yourself to become involved in things you enjoy without spreading yourself too thin.  Integrate into new activities slowly for an optimal experience and to prevent burn-out.
  3. Identify your resources:  Many college campuses offer helpful services, such as mental health counseling, nutrition courses, support groups, etc.  Before transition to campus, identify what resources are at your disposal and utilize them as needed.
  4. Practice healthy ways of coping: Whether it is calling a friend, journaling, taking a walk or bubble bath, establish nourishing ways of dealing with overwhelming emotions.  The more you can practice this, the less likely you will turn to disordered eating to cope with stressful situations.

College can be a promising time in the life of any student.  Being aware of eating disorder risk factors and practicing steps towards prevention can help ensure that your college years are fruitful, productive, rewarding, and filled with memories you will cherish for a lifetime.

 

References:

[1]: Hoerr, S.L., et al., Risk for disordered eating relates to both gender and ethnicity for college students. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2002. 21(4): p. 307-314.

[2]: Zivin, K., et al., Persistence of mental health problems and needs in a college student population. Journal of affective disorders, 2009. 117(3): p. 180-185.

[3]: American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment: Reference Group Data Report. 2010, American College Health Association: Linthicum, MD.

[4]: Vohs, K.D., T.F. Heatherton, and M. Herrin, Disordered eating and the transition to college: A prospective study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2001. 29(3): p. 280-288.

[5]: Johnson, C., P.S. Powers, and R. Dick, Athletes and eating disorders: the National Collegiate Athletic Association study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 1999. 26(2): p. 179-188.

 

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