College students particularly at risk for eating disorders

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It is often said that a person’s college years are some of the best in their life, but the added freedoms and stresses can contribute to the development of harmful behaviors among students who may already feel overwhelmed. For an estimated 10 to 20 percent of women and four to 10 percent of men, these behaviors manifest in an eating disorder.

Why are college students at risk?

Young people, especially women, are most at risk for developing an eating disorder during their college years.

“Eating disorders develop when the need to feel control over a stressful environment is channeled through food restriction, over-exercise, and an unhealthy focus on body weight,” according to the Child Mind Institute.

College is both exciting and challenging. First-year students encounter a larger course load, unfamiliar surroundings, social pressures and increased opportunities for comparing themselves to others. 

“College students are known for strange eating habits, but it’s a long trip from attempts at losing the freshman 15 to a full-blown eating disorder,” the institute stated. “An eating disorder is diagnosed when these behaviors are sustained over time—becoming dangerous, all-consuming and unmanageable.”

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, so knowing the warning signs can be life-saving.

What do eating disorders look like?

Binge eating disorder (BED), anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the most common types of eating disorders, each with their own defining symptoms.

BED is characterized by the repeated consumption of large amounts of food without offsetting the intake with unhealthy actions such as purging. Sufferers often feel like they are losing control while binging and feel guilt or shame afterward.

Those experiencing anorexia nervosa often restrict calories and the types of foods they eat, exercise compulsively and have difficulty maintaining an appropriate weight for their age and height. Contrary to common stereotypes, individuals to not have to appear underweight to receive this diagnosis.

Lastly, “Bulimia nervosa is…characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating,” according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

Since many of these behaviors are done privately, it can be difficult to recognize when a fellow student may be experiencing an eating disorder. However, some general warning signs include: self-loathing language, constant self-criticism, appearing stressed or sad, obsession with weight and rapid weight loss or gain.

How to express concern or get help

“The first step to helping someone with an eating disorder is to recognize that it’s a mental health problem, and not just foolish dieting,” as stated by the Child Mind Institute.

Beginning an open dialogue around such a sensitive, personal issue can be difficult, so the institute suggests staying calm, reserving any judgment and using “I statements” like “I am concerned.” Friendly support, coupled with firm persistence, is the key to productive encouragement. 
William Jewell College has free confidential psychological services, and other resources – including support groups – can be found online.

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