College is an exciting time of being released into the world, free from the stereotypes of high school, free from your quiet hometown, free from restricting schedules and curfews – which all sounds great until you realize that the quiet hometown and reliable schedules were actually blessings in disguise.
College, with all its many freedoms, can actually be a time when many people suffer from a lot of stress and anxiety, social pressures and lack of routine. For those already susceptible to disordered eating habits or thoughts of low self-esteem, college can lead to unhealthy habits in response to rocky mental health.
How common are eating disorders among college students?
According to research done by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), “Full-blown eating disorders typically begin between 18 and 21 years of age. Although some students will experiment with dieting and escape unscathed, 35 percent of “normal” dieters progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25 percent progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders.”
An estimated 10-20 percent of women and 4-10 percent of men battle with eating disorders, and the numbers are constantly growing.
Additionally, according to studies 4-out-of-10 students have struggled with an eating disorder or know someone who has – that is almost half, meaning that eating disorders of all kinds are incredibly prevalent on college campuses.
Why do college students battle eating disorders?
There are various areas in life where eating disorders are more prevalent, so what about college makes it something so common? Why do so many college students struggle with disordered eating habits and/or full-blown eating disorders?
Increased stress levels
For those used to the structure and speed of high school, the increased academic demands, lack of schedule and social pressures of college can significantly increase stress levels. Stress can trigger underlying mental health conditions previously unnoticed, including eating disorders. When one feels stressed, binge-eating habits may arise as a means of coping.
Desiring a sense of control
A lot about college life can lead one to feel like their life is out of control. This may be an overwhelming homework load, stress about life/jobs post-grad or even finances in college. Eating disorders, including over-exercising or restrictive eating habits, may temporarily lead to a sense of control, but long-term lead to mental illness.
In a society where skinny is marketed as the most desirable body shape, both men and women may buy into unhealthy, restrictive dieting in the hopes of meeting these ridiculous standards. Especially when one’s peers talk about such topics or engage in unhealthy exercise/eating habits themselves, you may feel increased pressure to take part.
Unrestricted food options
The cafeteria options and dining plans offered on college campuses may pose significant challenges to those prone to binge eating or bulimia. Additional late-night hours can further add to temptation and set up for failure for those who are unaccustomed to all-you-can-eat options.
Being on a sports team
Student-athletes have certain expectations of them regarding physical prowess and appearance, as well as performance in sports, much of which relies on an in-shape physique. While there is nothing wrong with balanced eating and exercising in order to maintain a healthy body condition, this can go awry when unhealthy pressure from one’s sport leads to restrictive, unbalanced eating and working out.
An underlying mental illness, like anxiety or depression, may trigger an eating disorder. Students battling depression may be more prone to binge-eat as a means of coping with depressive symptoms; or, those with anxiety about their physical appearance may cope with restrictive eating habits as a means of being accepted by their peers.
How can I support my mental health in college?
Those struggling with disordered eating in college can do various things to help cope with the pressures of school and manage one’s symptoms.
- Getting an accountability buddy – This is someone who you can share a meal with, go to the gym with or just talk to when you need that extra level of support
- Designing a meal plan – This should include a variety of fruits and veggies, meats and natural sources of proteins, as well as whole grains; three meals a day, with maybe some brain-boosting snacks in between, will offer structure to your day and nourishment to your body
- Managing stress – Whether it’s yoga, some meditation, deep breathing exercises, time spent outside or practicing a hobby, managing your stress levels is crucial to supporting your mental (and physical) health
- See a counselor – College is a hard time for many, and many students benefit from the unbiased advice and guidance of therapists for all kinds of mental health concerns, including eating disorders
Learning to increase your mental health through lifestyle habits during college will benefit you both during your time as a student and for the rest of your life.
Need additional eating disorder support?
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, or you are concerned about certain disordered eating habits in your life, consider reaching out to Seeds of Hope for support and help.
Learn more about our eating disorder programs by calling 610-644-6464 or contacting us online to talk with someone today.