Eating disorders are quite common in college-age students, and research has revealed that the problem is getting worse.  Data from one college over a thirteen-year period shows that the prevalence for all eating disorders increased from 23 to 32 percent among females and from 7.9 to 25 percent among males (White, 2011).

Why are College Students Particularly Susceptible to Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating?

Eating disorders thrive under stressful conditions, making college a breeding ground for Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia, Binge Eating and other destructive behavior.  Long studying hours, homesickness, poor sleep habits, lack of time management, financial hardships, high stakes tests, competition among peers, newfound independence, and social pressures from dating and forming friendships open the door for maladaptive coping strategies to deal with the unique stressors students face.  Unfortunately, many students may turn to excessive eating and drinking, substance use, and high-risk sexual behaviors to manage feelings of anxiety and depression.  Others end up with eating disorders.

Some eating disorders, Anorexia, in particular, are synonymous with control issues.  Students affected with Anorexia often have obsessive-compulsive tendencies (NDIC, 1990).  They have rigid thinking, a need to be perfect, and an intense need to control their external world.  Restricting food intake is often used as a coping strategy when one’s external world feels out of control. 

It is also important to keep in mind that college students are still in an egocentric phase of life where they experience the imaginary audience complex and are hyper-aware of others’ perceptions of them and their body.  Without a well-developed sense of identity, students focus on their weight and self-image as perceived by others.  The heightened social pressures that exist on campus often propel young women and men to develop disordered eating habits and distorted body image.
Even a fear of gaining the “Freshman 15” can affect students.  Many of us have heard of the “Freshmen 15”, however, the term is actually a myth.  In reality, the average college student gains two and a half to three and a pounds per year in comparison to their non-college attending peers (NEDA, 2013).

Eating Disorder Triggers

Navigating major life transitions can be challenging and stressful, even for the most adaptable person.  Peers, parents, and educators need to be aware of the fact that going to college for the first time or returning to school after a summer or other long break can be particularly unnerving.  Everything that comes with a new semester (think new classes, new professors, classmates, living quarters, and roommates) can make students feel out of control, and easily overwhelmed.  The onset of eating disorder behaviors, an intensification or re-emergence of symptoms can result.  
College athletes, students with a history of disordered eating habits, individuals with intense feelings of anxiety or depression, and anyone who has experienced a history of physical or sexual abuse are particularly at risk as well. 

Eating Disorders Can Be Treated

If we don’t pay attention to warning signs, tendencies can gain strength and develop into full-fledged eating disorders that have severe physical and mental health consequences.   If you are concerned about a college student in your life, Three Trees Center for Disordered Eating located in Boca Raton, Florida is here to help by providing you with information, care and individualized treatment plans in a supportive environment.  Contact us at 561-717-2112 for a confidential and free consultation.

Author Dr. Jamie Brodarick, LMFT is the Clinical Director for Three Trees Center for Disordered Eating and also works as an Adjunct Professor at Palm Beach Atlantic and Nova Southeastern University, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Psychology, Human Services, and Counseling.