The college years can be a wonderful and exciting time for students. However, for those suffering with an eating disorder, it can be a daily struggle. Research suggests that many students coming into college have already developed maladaptive eating patterns and distorted body image . With this in mind, colleges and universities need to find effective ways to support their students who may be struggling in these areas.
Consider the following statistics:
- The median age of onset for those with a diagnosis of an eating disorder is between 18 and 21 years old. 
- Next to depression, eating concerns are the most common self-reported psychiatric diagnosis among college students. 
- At least three quarters (76%) of college students are dissatisfied with their weight. 
- It is estimated that extreme forms of disordered eating or clinical eating disorders affect 10-20% of female students. [5-8]
- It is also estimated that extreme forms of disordered eating or clinical eating disorders affect 4-10% of male university students. [4 and 6]
- 6.1% of females and 2.7% of males would likely meet the criteria for Binge Eating Disorder. 
- 1 in 5 college females believe that weight concerns interfere with social relationships. 1 in 10 college males believe that weight concerns interfere with social relationships. 
- Just over 17% of college females believe that weight concerns interfere with academics, while 10% of college males believe that weight concerns interfere with academics. 
With the startling statistics cited above, it is easy to understand why college is considered such a high-risk time for eating disorders and disordered eating. Attending a university for the first time is a significant transition period for many young adults. Students must learn to adjust to this new campus community, which may include: a social life quite different than what was experienced in high school, eating meals away from their structured home environment, new living arrangements, a significant increase in academic coursework, participation in a variety of student clubs and organizations, and a newfound independence that may seem a bit unsettling and overwhelming. During this transition period, young adults are sometimes faced with high levels of stress, and feel as if they are unequipped to cope with all of the demands that have been placed upon them in this new setting.
Addressing Eating Disorders on Campus
According to the 2010 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, 24.3% of college counseling centers have reported an increase in students exhibiting eating disorder symptoms.  So, what can be done to address this increase in referrals for counseling? The first step recommended is to establish a university-wide committee of those invested in supporting students dealing with this life-threatening illness. Including only clinicians with expertise in this area will not be sufficient. College administrators and representatives from the Dean’s Office must also be a part of this planning process. Gathering all of these staff members to join your committee will certainly be a daunting task. However, it will take collaboration from several key departments to ensure that campus wide support of these initiatives is successful.
The next step is for each educational institution to establish department-specific ED policies and procedures to effectively address both body image and/or eating concerns among the college student population. (ELA will provide a link to any eating disorder policy shared with us, so that both administrators and clinicians can have some guidance in the development of their own protocols in this area).
What else can we do to support our students?
One tool utilized by hundreds of universities nationwide is the inclusion of eating disorder screening tools designed specifically for the college student population. These screenings can be done either in person or online through a student’s university website. The National Eating Disorders Screening Program (NEDSP) is designed to educate and screen college students for eating disorders, and to connect at-risk students with the resources they need to overcome their disorder. For more information on how you can bring this program to your campus, click here.
The Eating for Life Alliance website was designed as a resource for the entire university community: students, their families, as well as campus administrators, outreach staff and health care providers. We appreciate your interest and commitment in seeking out new ways to support your student body. Working together, we believe we can have a significant impact in the lives of students in need of our support.
- Vohs, K.D., T.F. Heatherton, and M. Herrin, Disordered eating and the transition to college: A prospective study. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2001. 29(3): p. 280-288.
- Hudson, J.I., et al., The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 2007. 61(3): p. 348-358.
- Soet, J. and T. Sevig, Mental health issues facing a diverse sample of college students: Results from the College Student Mental Health Survey. NASPA journal, 2006. 43(3): p. 410-431.
- Hoerr, S.L., et al., Risk for disordered eating relates to both gender and ethnicity for college students. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2002. 21(4): p. 307-314.
- Anstine, D. and D. Grinenko, Rapid screening for disordered eating in college-aged females in the primary care setting. The Journal of adolescent health: official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 2000. 26(5): p. 338-342.
- Sira, N. and R. Pawlak, Prevalence of overweight and obesity, and dieting attitudes among Caucasian and African American college students in Eastern North Carolina: A cross-sectional survey. Nutrition Research and Practice, 2010. 4(1): p. 36-42.
- Thome, J., Relations among exercise, coping, disordered eating, and psychological health among college students. Eating behaviors, 2004. 5(4): p. 337-351.
- Wonderlich-Tierney, A.L. and J.S. Vander Wal, The effects of social support and coping on the relationship between social anxiety and eating disorders. Eating behaviors, 2010. 11(2): p. 85-91.
- Saules, K.K., et al., The contributions of weight problem perception, BMI, gender, mood, and smoking status to binge eating among college students. Eating behaviors, 2009. 10(1): p. 1-9.
- Gallagher, R., National Survey of Counseling Center Directors 2010, University of Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh, PA.