Eating Disorders Among College Students

a woman represents eating disorders among college students

While progress is happening every day, there’s still a significant stigma surrounding mental health issues, including eating disorders. Many people don’t believe that eating disorders are real, or they significantly underestimate the effects eating disorders can have. Of course, when people do think about eating disorders, the common picture that comes to their minds is young women. While this isn’t too far off the mark, many people greatly underestimate the impact of eating disorders among college students.

No matter a person’s age, eating disorders are dangerous conditions. They take a toll on every system of the body. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses. Malnutrition leads to a range of issues, including electrolyte imbalances, muscle atrophy, and even multiple organ failure. At any age, if you suspect an eating disorder, it’s important to learn more and reach out to an eating disorder treatment center for young women for help. This is especially important, however, for college students in their formative years.

Are Eating Disorders Among College Students a Major Problem?

College student eating disorders are much more common than many people think. In fact, studies show that they’re a growing problem. Data from one study showed that 32.6% of females at one university meet requirements for an eating disorder diagnosis, up from 23.4% thirteen years prior. With almost a third of women struggling at this particular university, there’s clearly a problem. However, why are eating disorders so prevalent among this age group? And furthermore, why are they on the rise?

College Is a Perfect Storm of Risk Factors

Starting college is an exciting time, but it’s also extraordinarily stressful. All at once, teens experience the following:

  • Living away from home for the first time
  • Lack of a structured routine
  • Navigating relationships with new roommates
  • Pressure to choose a career path
  • Building a new social circle
  • Balancing school, work, and personal responsibilities

Without guidance from parents, trusted coaches, and teachers, this can be a rattling experience for even the best students. With all of these challenges, some people will do anything to feel like they’re in control again.

A Word on Identity and Body Image

College can be a time of self-discovery and playing with identity and presentation. However, it’s also a time of intense pressure on body image. Dieting, cleanses, and excessive exercise are all common trends in university culture, especially among women. There’s a distinct focus on thinness and avoiding the “Freshman 15.”

While this pressure doesn’t necessarily lead to eating disorders, it’s a contributing factor in those that are already vulnerable. These seemingly harmless fads can develop into truly harmful habits for some.

Signs of an Eating Disorder in College Students

Eating disorders can be challenging to spot in college students. For one, they’re often away from friends and family that know them well. The people that would most likely be able to spot a change may only see their loved one on the occasional weekend or break. This makes it difficult for them to notice changes in day-to-day activities, such as skipped meals or purging activities. However, they might see more long-term changes, such as dramatic weight changes. New friends might not notice day-to-day behaviors, or think that they’re normal for the individual.

Furthermore, many people believe that eating disorders focus only on weight loss. While this is true of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder are different. Both involve regularly eating large amounts of food in one sitting. However, with bulimia, people will engage in purging behaviors, including vomiting and abusing laxatives. People who struggle with bulimia are often of average weight, while binge eating disorder can cause weight gain. Any rapid change in weight, up or down, can be cause for concern.

Signs of eating disorders among college students include:

  • Negative self-talk
  • Not eating in front of others and making excuses to avoid eating
  • Trips to the restroom immediately after eating
  • Excessive exercise
  • Obsession over food and diet
  • Frequently comparing their own bodies to others’
  • Intense focus on losing weight
  • Loose clothing to mask weight loss
  • Hiding food
  • Rapid weight loss or gain

Because of their unique situation and novel circumstances, people dealing with eating disorders in college can often fall through the cracks. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

What Resources Are Available to Help?

At many universities and colleges, mental health support is offered as a part of each student’s tuition and fees. Resources can include services like eating disorder screenings, counseling sessions with professionals with eating disorder specialties, nutritionists, printed resources, and prevention programs for individuals in high-risk sports.

Magnolia Creek’s University Partnership Program

Here at Magnolia Creek, we are proud to partner with higher education institutions with our University Partnership Program. For program members, we provide them with a toolkit to better identify and treat eating disorders within their student populations. We also offer hands-on training, direct phone access to Magnolia Creek staff, and help with planning National Eating Disorders Awareness Week events and programs.

Eating disorders can have a significant impact on a woman’s college career. For additional support, or to start an eating disorder treatment program, give Magnolia Creek a call today at 205-409-4220.


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