How Dieting and Eating Disorders Affect College Students

Nearly half of all Americans have tried to lose weight via dieting in the past 12 months, a rate that is even higher among women.

Not quite half of college-age women dieted to lose weight, but 44% is still a troubling statistic when you consider the proclivity for that same group to engage in disordered eating. A 2011 study found that over a 13-year period, the rate of eating disorders among these young women increased from 23.4% to 32.6%.

College is an environment some medical experts have dubbed a perfect storm for eating disorders, the most common of which are anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

An increased workload, decreased structure, and pressure to perform, combined with the possibilities of poor self-esteem and being away from home for the first time, can quickly add up to young women being at severe risk for struggling with eating disorders.

Those are some of the many reasons why people most commonly develop eating disorders between the ages of 18 and 21. Recently, many eating disorder treatment centers are finding that many young women are arriving at college with less-than-healthy relationships with food.

A lot of that can be pinned on a culture that idolizes thinness and focuses on exterior beauty. With so many diet companies profiting off people’s body insecurity — particularly targeting young women — it’s easy to see how any young person can develop a potentially toxic relationship with losing weight or gaining weight well before their college years.

One popular axiom for those heading to college is the so-called “freshman 15,” the phenomenon that suggests that most students will gain about 15 pounds during their first year due to a combination of unhealthy eating, an unpredictable schedule, and, for some, more frequent access to food.

But if you tune out the kids down the dorm hall and read trusted research, you will find that the freshman 15 is less maxim and more myth. Most studies have discovered that the average amount of weight gained by incoming freshmen is between two and five pounds, only slightly more than peers who aren’t attending college.

A quick YouTube search for “freshman 15” includes numerous videos on how to avoid gaining weight or how to lose the weight you’ve already gained that have tens of thousands of views — and they’re almost exclusively hosted by young women whose body types match exactly what any company hawking weight loss products would like you to see, that thin equals healthy.

If you’re one of the many college students who are focused on their weight, pay attention to the potential symptoms of an eating disorder. These may include:

  • Being afraid of eating with peers
  • Eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time
  • Excessive exercise
  • Skipping meals or eliminating food groups in an attempt to lose weight
  • Restriction of eating prior to times when you know that you’ll be drinking
  • Preoccupation with thoughts of food or your body

Services to help those who may be struggling with eating disorders on college campuses are lacking. According to one study, among college students who screened positive for an eating disorder, just 20% received treatment.

There are other barriers to treatment: From the stigma of seeking care — particularly in an environment filled with peers and possible judgment — to financing treatment and taking the time to commit to receiving it, even if professional intervention is available, it’s often an afterthought.

If you’re worried that you or someone you know might have symptoms of an eating disorder, there are still plenty of avenues that can help. Reach out to your school’s counseling center. Talk to a trusted physician from back home. Don’t be afraid to tell your family or other members of your support system if you’re struggling.

Any of these resources can assist you in getting the help you need, far away from the TikTok videos and Instagram accounts that promise to revolutionize your diet with just lemon water and cashews.