Eating Disorders among College Students

By Staff Writers

With more than between 10 and 20% of female and 4 to 10% of male college students developing an eating disorder each year and college health centers overwhelmed with requests for counseling, it’s clear that eating disorders remain a major issue among young people today.

Eating disorders can be associated with serious mental and physical health problems. Yet, they often go unrecognized or untreated due to difficulty identifying symptoms or seeking the necessary treatment.

College is a transition period and may create unique triggers – personal relationships, academic stressors, or cultural pressures on social media – that lead to higher rates and greater severity of eating disorders compared to other age groups.

Main Types of Eating Disorders in College Students

Today, the most prevalent eating disorders among college students include anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa. Still, these are not the only types of eating disorders that may be present in college students. 

Here are the most common types:

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a disease that is characterized by an intense fear of becoming overweight or fat, a distorted body image, and restricting food intake to the point where weight loss becomes extreme and can lead to serious health complications.

In the United States, approximately 1% of all women are likely to be diagnosed with anorexia at some point in their life. Anorexia is more common in college students than in other age groups, especially among female athletes.

Long-term impacts of anorexia can include serious cardiac complications, fatigue, depression, low bone density, and more. All these signs can have a long-term impact on college students’ mental and physical health.

Binge Eating Disorder

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is characterized by episodes of overeating, followed by feelings of guilt, shame, or distress. BED is the most prevalent eating disorder among college students, affecting an estimated 3% of all women and 2% of men in the United States.

Binge eating can lead to serious physical and psychological health problems, such as weight gain, diabetes, high cholesterol, depression, and anxiety. Besides, it can impact academic performance and interfere with other aspects of life.

Orthorexia Nervosa

Orthorexia Nervosa is an unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating. This disorder can manifest as an extreme restriction of food intake to improve overall health or an obsession with food quality and nutrition. Orthorexia is more common than previously thought, especially among college students.

People with orthorexia often have feelings of guilt when eating certain foods and become overwhelmed by nutrition facts. Long-term effects of orthorexia include malnutrition, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. 

Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia Nervosa is another severe type of eating disorder that is characterized by binge eating followed by extreme compensatory behaviors, such as self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or the use of laxatives to prevent weight gain.

It is estimated that around 1.5% of all women have bulimia at some point in their lives. However, like anorexia, the prevalence of bulimia among college students is much higher. 

If colleague students struggle with bulimia, it can lead to a range of physical and mental health complications such as stomach problems, electrolyte imbalances, depression, and anxiety. Once again, these can have long-term implications on a student’s academic performance and overall well-being.

Other Types of Eating Disorders

Other rare types of eating disorders include Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), Night Eating Syndrome, and pica. Although these are less common than the other types, college students can still struggle with any of these. 

For example, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is characterized by avoidance or restriction of food intake due to fear of eating or a lack of interest in eating. People with ARFID are at risk for malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, and other serious health problems. 

Night Eating Syndrome is defined as excessive nighttime food consumption, with symptoms such as a craving for high-calorie foods, eating a large portion of the daily calories after dinner, and difficulty sleeping. It can lead to obesity, depression, and other health issues.

Finally, pica is an eating disorder characterized by the ingestion of non-foods such as dirt, clay, paint chips, and other substances. Students with pica are at risk of developing gastrointestinal problems and other health complications caused by the ingestion of these substances. 

Main Causes of Eating Disorders in College Students

Very often, the exact cause of an eating disorder is hard to determine and may vary from person to person. However, some of the most common causes of eating disorders in college students include genetic predisposition, societal pressures, and personal struggles.

Genetic Predisposition

Eating disorders can sometimes be the result of inherited genetic traits. For example, people with a family history of eating disorders may be more likely to develop one themselves.

Evidence from recent studies suggests that genetic composition may be a significant factor in determining someone’s predisposition toward developing an eating disorder.

Research conducted by the Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders website states that having a mother or sister with an eating disorder drastically increases your chances of developing anorexia (by 12 times) and bulimia (by four times).

So, while no single gene causes eating disorders, a person’s genetic makeup can play an important role in their predisposition to developing one.

Societal Pressures and Unhealthy Body Image

The pressure to be thin is often reinforced by societal expectations of beauty, which can lead to an unrealistic and dangerous body image.

Research suggests that magazines, television, movies, and social media can all contribute to this problem by reinforcing the idea that thinness is the ideal body type. It can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as extreme dieting, over-exercising, purging, and even extreme measures such as taking diet pills.

College students can be particularly vulnerable to these types of pressures due to the many changes taking place during this time. 

College is a time of transition, and some students may struggle to find their identity in this new environment. Unfortunately, this can lead to an obsession with body image and unhealthy behaviors to achieve perfection.

Personal Struggles and Low Self-Esteem

Sometimes, feelings of low self-esteem or a lack of self-confidence can lead to the development of an eating disorder. These feelings can result from social pressures, bullying, or even a difficult personal situation. 

Students may struggle with feelings of inadequacy or insecurity, and an eating disorder can be an effective way to cope with these feelings. 

Moreover, those susceptible to stress and anxiety may risk developing issues associated with binge eating. Therefore, in an attempt to reduce their distressful emotions, these individuals commonly indulge in excessive amounts of unhealthy food.

Treatments for Students with Eating Disorders

All eating disorders require immediate treatment, and the sooner someone seeks help, the better their chances of making a full recovery. Treatments for students with eating disorders typically include a combination of therapy, nutrition counseling, and medication. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a quite effective and recommended form of therapy for treating eating disorders. It is used to help the person recognize and address their unhealthy thoughts and behaviors surrounding food.

Patients can learn to replace these thoughts with healthier and more positive ones through CBT.

Studies prove that CBT is an effective treatment for both bulimia and anorexia, as it helps to reduce symptoms of both disorders. In addition, CBT can also help to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress. 

Nutrition Counseling

Nutrition counseling is important in providing the proper education on nutrition needed to recover from an eating disorder. 

Nutrition counseling involves one-on-one meetings with a dietician to learn how to make healthy food choices and restore the body to a healthy weight.

The dietician will also provide advice on how to structure meals and snacks and offer guidance on eating habits and lifestyle changes. 

One research suggests that, when combined with psychotherapy, nutrition counseling can be a powerfully effective tool in treating eating disorders.


In certain cases, the use of medication may be recommended to treat an eating disorder.

For anorexia, antidepressant medications may be prescribed to help reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. Anti-anxiety medications may also be considered to reduce anxiety and panic symptoms.

For bulimia, antidepressants are commonly prescribed to help reduce the urge to binge eat or purge. Moreover, anti-anxiety medications can be a viable option for alleviating anxiety symptoms.

Regardless of the type of eating disorder being treated, it is important to speak with a doctor before taking any form of medication. 

How Can Colleges Support Students with Eating Disorders?

Colleges can play a major role in supporting students with eating disorders. Colleges need to create an environment that promotes mental health and well-being while also providing resources to those who need them most. 

Provide Education on Nutrition and Healthy Eating Habits

The first step is to provide education on nutrition and healthy eating habits. Colleges should offer nutritional workshops and classes that teach students the importance of proper nutrition and healthy food choices. 

Such classes should also focus on the dangers of dieting and how to prevent eating disorders from forming. They will also provide students with the knowledge and resources to recognize signs of an eating disorder and how to seek help. 

Offer Comprehensive Counselling Services

Moreover, colleges should provide comprehensive counseling services to help students cope with any underlying issues or mental health concerns. A trained professional can help students learn how to manage stress, anxiety, and depression while providing guidance on self-care. 

Comprehensive counseling services should include individual therapy, group counseling, and family therapy. Such a combined approach is necessary to help the student recover.

Conduct Eating Disorder Screenings 

Colleges should also be aware of any warning signs indicating an eating disorder. Some common indicators include drastic weight loss or gain, aversion to certain food groups, and a preoccupation with exercise. 

By conducting eating disorder screenings, colleges can identify any potential risks and intervene before the student’s health is in danger. Such screenings should also be offered to students regularly to detect any changes or signs of an eating disorder. 

Organize Eating Disorder Workshops

Eating disorder workshops are a great way for colleges to educate students on the dangers of eating disorders and how to recognize the signs. The workshops can also provide tips and strategies for developing healthy eating habits and productively coping with stress. 

Moreover, the workshops should also focus on how to seek help and support if needed. Students can be taught about the resources available and how to access them, such as counseling services and support groups. 

Create Support Groups or Organizations

Finally, colleges need to organize support groups or organizations dedicated to those struggling with eating disorders. These support groups can provide a safe space for students to discuss their struggles without fear of judgment. 

By providing resources and support, colleges have the potential to make a major impact on the lives of those struggling with eating disorders. In addition, by creating an environment that encourages healthy eating habits and promotes mental health, college campuses can help students with the tools they need to recover. 

Does your college provide mental health support?

Bottom Line

Eating disorders are serious mental health illnesses that require treatment. Colleges should provide education, counseling services, eating disorder screenings, workshops, and support groups to help those struggling with an eating disorder get the help they need. 

It is also important to note that medication may also be used in some cases. However, speaking with a doctor or healthcare provider is essential to find the best course of action. 

With proper help and treatment, those suffering from eating disorders can fully recover and lead healthy lives. By providing these resources and support to students, colleges can help those in need get the required assistance.

About the Author

TakeCareStudy is committed to delivering valuable mental health content. We are covering all topics that have to do with students wellbeing, academic success and relationship matters.

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