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The prevalence of eating disorders is an increasing concern for college students. Research shows that up to 17% of female college students and 4% of male students exhibit signs of an eating disorder. The impact of an eating disorder can be felt in all aspects of a college student’s life. For example, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) found that 25% of college-aged women engage in binge eating and purging as a weight-management technique, and that “eating disorders have the second-highest mortality rate of all mental health disorders, surpassed only by opioid addiction.”
Additionally, there is an increased risk for nonbinary and transgender college students to develop disordered eating. Relative to cisgender women, genderqueer and nonbinary college students have the highest risk of developing an eating disorder, according to research published by the Annals of Epidemiology. According to The Trevor Project, 9% of LGBTQ+ youths ages 13–24 reported having been diagnosed with an eating disorder. In comparison to those who have never suspected nor had an eating disorder diagnosis, the same research found that LGBTQ+ youth who have ever been diagnosed with an eating disorder had nearly 4x greater odds of attempting suicide in the past year.
All of these statistics highlight the devastating and far-reaching impact that eating disorders can have on college students. It also demonstrates the importance of colleges and universities providing support and resources for students who are struggling with these conditions. By seeking treatment and support, students can work toward a healthier relationship with food and their bodies, reducing the negative impact of eating disorders.
Causes and symptoms of eating disorders
How is an eating disorder defined? It is a “behavioral condition characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions.” And the most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED), according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Causes for eating disorders are complex and can vary from person to person, but some common contributing factors include genetics, environmental factors, psychological factors, trauma, and biology.
Most eating disorders involve a significant focus on weight, body shape, physical appearance, and food, leading to a negative body image and dangerous eating behaviors. Eating disorders are also serious mental health conditions that can have a significant impact on a person’s emotional and social well-being. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, symptoms of disordered eating may include chronic weight fluctuations; preoccupation with food, weight, and body image negatively impacting quality of life; excessive exercise; and food restriction, fasting, or purging to “make up for bad foods” consumed. Symptoms and risk factors vary depending on the type of eating disorder.
How diet culture influences eating disorders
Diet culture refers to a societal belief system that values thinness and equates it with health, moral worth, and success. According to the National Alliance for Eating Disorders (NAED), it’s a pervasive cultural norm that glorifies weight loss, restricts food intake, and reinforces harmful beauty standards.
Diet culture has a significant impact on eating disorders because it promotes the idea that the path to happiness and success is through weight loss and food restriction. This mindset can lead to disordered eating patterns and an obsession with food and body image, which can contribute to the development of an eating disorder. Diet culture also promotes the belief that certain foods are “good” or “bad,” leading to feelings of guilt and shame when one consumes “bad” foods.
Whether students realize it or not, diet culture has a stronghold in the media and daily life. From juice cleanses to Keto and Paleo, the world of diet culture has wreaked havoc on the self-esteem and mental health of millions of college students.
Rather than trying to fit in a one-size-fits-all approach to health and wellness, students should focus on intuitive eating and self-care practices that prioritize mental and physical health, rather than weight loss or restriction. The result is that individuals can work toward a healthier relationship with food and their bodies, reducing the risk of developing an eating disorder.
Support students when they need it most
The impact of eating disorders on college students
Eating disorders can have a profound impact on college students, affecting more than just their physical well-being. Some of the ways that eating disorders can impact college students include:
Eating disorders can cause a range of physical health problems, including malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, heart problems, and digestive issues. In severe cases, eating disorders can be life-threatening.
Eating disorders can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. This can further exacerbate the already-stressed and demanding nature of college life.
Eating disorders can impair a student’s ability to concentrate and remember information, leading to decreased academic performance. Additionally, students who struggle with eating disorders may miss classes, have difficulty meeting deadlines, and experience a decline in overall academic motivation.
Eating disorders can make it difficult for students to form and maintain social relationships with friends and family members, as their focus becomes centered on food and body image. This can lead to feelings of isolation, low self-esteem, and decreased overall happiness.
Beyond the physical toll, eating disorders can be costly in terms of medical expenses and lost income for working students due to decreased productivity. College students may struggle to pay for treatment and support, adding to the financial stress of an already expensive time in their lives.
Resources to support students facing eating disorders
Many colleges and universities provide access to one or more of these primary resources and programs available to support students struggling with eating disorders:
- Counseling Services: In addition to counseling services to students, many have dedicated mental health professionals who specialize in eating disorders. These professionals can provide individual and group therapy, as well as resources and support for recovery.
- Eating Disorder Treatment Centers: Partnerships with local eating disorder treatment centers provide students with access to specialized care. These centers offer inpatient and outpatient programs, as well as support groups and aftercare services.
- Student Health Services: Student health services offer medical and mental health care, including support for eating disorders. These services can provide referrals to specialized treatment centers and connect students with resources and support.
- Student Organizations: There may be student organizations that focus on eating disorder awareness and support. These organizations can provide peer support, engaging educational opportunities, and advocacy to the campus and local communities.
- Online and Virtual Resources: There are numerous online resources available to support college students with eating disorders, including websites, blogs, and forums. These resources provide information and support for recovery, as well as resources for finding treatment and support.
Each person’s experience with an eating disorder is unique, and the best approach depends on individual needs and circumstances. If you know a student struggling with an eating disorder, it’s important to help them get professional help and support as soon as possible. Some notable organizations that can provide resources for support include:
Steps that colleges and universities can take to support students with eating disorders
College campuses and communities can be the front line for students who are struggling with disordered eating. For higher education leaders, consider these steps to support students with eating disorders:
1. Awareness and Education
2. Professional Training
3. Resources and Support
4. Peer Support
Peer-to-peer support like Peer Community in the TimelyCare platform, provides a place to connect with other students across the country who may also face challenges with body image and diet culture. Since peer support may be the first step in seeking care, it also helps to remove the stigma of seeking mental health support, promotes treatment engagement, and reaches a wider demographic. Additionally, this provides an opportunity to support a new cultural norm that focuses on body inclusivity and healthy social expectations.
5. Health and Wellness Programs
6. Community Collaboration
7. Create a Safe and Supportive Environment
How can virtual health care help a student with an eating disorder?
Virtual health and well-being resources, such as the TimelyCare platform, can support students struggling with eating disorders by offering ways to improve their health. The platform offers a wide range of services including mental health counseling, on-demand emotional support, medical care, psychiatry, health coaching, basic needs assistance, faculty and staff guidance, and digital self-care content.
In addition to medical and mental health providers, health coaches are an integral part of the healthcare team and can help students receive individualized guidance and education while reducing barriers to care. Through health coaching, students are empowered in the process of identifying intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, setting meaningful goals, and developing a strategy to take small steps towards goal achievement. Our telehealth services are available 24/7/365 in all 50 states and provide a seamless extension of on-campus health services, mental health support, and physical health care for college students.
To learn how TimelyCare can help you support students, contact us today.