The Prevalence of Eating Disorders in College Students

A multi-collegiate study of female college athletes found that 2% had an eating disorder and 25.5% exhibited symptoms at a subclinical level. Another study indicated that 30% to 70% of college students seeking eating disorder treatment receive medical weight-loss treatment instead of mental health treatment. Furthermore, just 6% of college students with disordered eating were asked about their eating habits by a healthcare provider.

Three Common Eating Disorders

One of the more common eating disorders is anorexia nervosa, a condition marked by extreme limits on food consumption as well as severe weight-related misconceptions. The two types of anorexia nervosa are restrictive and binge-purge. Examples of anorexia symptoms per the National Institutes of Health include extreme thinness, intense fear of gaining weight, thinning of the bones, infertility, and brain damage.

Another common eating disorder is bulimia nervosa, a condition marked by recurrent episodes of binge eating while feeling a lack of control and purging, all while either maintaining a normal weight or being overweight. The National Institutes of Health lists common symptoms as gastrointestinal problems, chronically inflamed and sore throat, worn tooth enamel due to stomach acid exposure, and severe dehydration from purging.

A third common eating disorder is binge eating disorder, a condition marked by feeling a lack of control over eating, not following binge episodes with extreme weight loss attempts, or obesity. Binge eating disorder symptoms per the National Institutes of Health include eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific period of time, eating alone in secret, eating fast during binge episodes, and eating until uncomfortably full.

The Intersection of Mental Health and Eating Disorders

Though individuals struggling with an eating disorder exhibit many physical symptoms, the underlying causes are closely linked to mental health.

How Mental Health Impacts Eating Disorders

Many factors increase the likelihood that college students will develop an eating disorder. These factors include increased workload, increased peer pressure, less structure, anxieties, poor self-esteem, and all-you-can-eat dining halls.

Dieting, bingeing, and purging may begin as a way for students to cope with painful emotions and to feel in control of their lives. According to the Child Mind Institute, “Disordered eating behavior ranges from fad dieting, or attempts at ‘clean’ eating by restricting fats, dairy, or gluten to more severe manifestations such as over-exercising, abusing laxatives, bingeing, or purging, which are serious but don’t yet meet the criteria for an eating disorder.” An eating disorder is diagnosed when behaviors last long term and become dangerous, all-consuming, and uncontrollable.


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