Eating Disorders Among College Students

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Eating disorders affect people of all ages, but are especially prominent among college students.

The Massachusetts Eating Disorders Association cites the following statistics on college student eating disorders:

  • 15% of women 17 to 24 have eating disorders
  • 40% of female college students have eating disorders
  • 91% of female college students have attempted to control their weight through dieting

While recent information is not available, experts say the incidence of eating disorders among college students who are males is also increasing. According to one study on college student eating disorders, 5% to 20% of college females and 1% to 7% of college males have eating disorders (Johnson & Connors, The Etiology and Treatment of Bulimia Nervosa, 1987).

Diagnosing College Student Eating Disorders

The earlier eating disorders are diagnosed in college students and treated, the more likely it will be that they will recover completely. And yet many college students do not receive treatment for their eating disorders until their illness is at an advanced stage.

At that point, college students, like other patients, may already have, or may be at risk of having, a serious medical condition. Eating disorders can damage almost every organ system or body part, including the brain, liver, kidneys, heart, GI tract, bones, teeth, skin and hair. If left untreated, eating disorders can result in osteoporosis, retarded growth, kidney problems, ulcers and heart failure. Eating disorders can also lead to death.

So why aren’t eating disorders diagnosed earlier? One reason is that college students with eating disorders often try to hide them. College students with eating disorders – and their family and friends – may be in denial about their eating disorders, or may simply be unaware of the signs of eating disorders.

Another reason is that many college students who have eating disorders are not people we would think of as having eating disorders. We’ve come to think of eating disorders as affecting young women, yet they are increasingly common in males as well as females, and in people of all ages, from pre-teens to seniors. While college students are especially at risk, eating disorders are increasingly common even in pre-teens.

The more a college student knows about eating disorders, the better they will be able to determine whether they, other college students, family members or friends have eating disorders.

Types of College Student Eating Disorders

The most common college student eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. Most patients do not meet all of the clinical criteria for their eating disorders. Even if they have some of the symptoms or come close to meeting the criteria, they should seek medical treatment.

College Students With Anorexia

College students with anorexia may take extreme measures to avoid eating. They often become abnormally thin – and still talk about feeling fat or bloated. Because they have a distorted image of their body, they typically continue to diet even when they are severely underweight. Signs of anorexia include:

  • An intense drive for thinness
  • Refusal to maintain a minimal normal weight
  • Fear of becoming fat
  • Distorted body image
  • Denying feelings of hunger
  • Avoiding situations where food in involved
  • Developing rituals around preparing food and eating
  • Obsession with dieting
  • Social withdrawal
  • Pronounced emotional changes, such as irritability, depression and anxiety

In spite of dieting, people with anorexia are typically preoccupied with food, cooking, nutrition and the number of calories in each meal.

Another sign of anorexia is the tendency to exercise obsessively – well beyond what is needed to maintain good health. Individuals with anorexia also weigh themselves frequently. They often restrict not only food, but relationships, social activities and pleasure.

Physical signs of anorexia include thinning hair; dry, flaky skin, and cracked or broken nails. Woman with anorexia often stop menstruating. The clinical definition says people suffering from anorexia are at 85% or less of their ideal body weight.

College Students With Bulimia

College students with bulimia typically “binge and purge.” A binge is the consumption of a large amount of food within a short period of time. Purging is forced vomiting. College students with bulimia may use other methods to compensate for their binging and control their weight, such as excessive exercise, or use of laxatives or diet pills.

College students with bulimia can frequently hide their affliction, because they often maintain a normal body weight. Physical signs may include swollen glands, discolored teeth and calluses on the hands caused by self-inducing vomiting, staining or deterioration of tooth enamel; broken blood vessels around the eyes; stomach pain, and weakness or fatigue. Woman with bulimia often stop menstruating.

People with bulimia are always extremely concerned with their body weight and shape, and they may have a distorted image of their body. They may create complex schedules to make time for binging and purging. They are often socially withdrawn, depressed, severely self-critical and obsessed with weight loss and controlling what they eat. Other signs may include:

  • Eating unusually large amounts of food with no apparent change in weight
  • Hiding of food
  • The frequent presence of a large number of food containers and wrappers
  • The frequent smell of vomit
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
  • Excessive use of diuretics
  • Going to the kitchen frequently when everyone is sleeping
  • Excessive, rigid exercise

The clinical diagnosis defines a person as having bulimia if she or he binges and purges several times a week for at least three consecutive months.

College Students With Binge-Eating Disorders

Binge eating disorder, as the name implies, is characterized by uncontrollable, excessive eating, followed by feelings of shame and guilt. Unlike those with bulimia, college students with binge-eating disorder typically do not purge their food. However, many who have bulimia also have binge-eating disorder.

College students with binge-eating disorder typically are overweight or obese. They feel like they have no control over their behavior, and eat in secret and when they are not hungry. They also feel shame and remorse over their behavior. They may hide food. Excessive amounts of food containers and wrappers are also evidence of binging. Other signs include:

  • Eating in secret
  • “Grazing” continuously without feeling satiated
  • Eating when stressed or when feeling uncertain how to cope
  • Feeling unable to control how much they eat
  • Experimenting with different diets

If You Or A College Student You Know Have An Eating Disorder, Take Action Today

If you suspect you or a college student you know have an eating disorder, seek professional counseling immediately.

Remember, the longer an eating disorder goes untreated, the more advanced it is likely to become – and the more difficult it will be to achieve full recovery. If you know a college student with an eating disorder, or believe that you or a loved one have an eating disorder, contact Walden Behavioral Care today at 781-647-6727 or online.