College Stress and Eating Disorders

With the start of the new school year comes new routines for students and families. For some college students, moving out of the house can be an exciting time, but for others, it can bring on an extra level of stress.

According to the American Psychological Association, 61% of students seeking counseling report anxiety. Other numbers include:

  • 49% depressed
  • 45% stressed
  • 31% family issues
  • 28% academic performance 
  • 27% relationship problems

One way these issues can manifest themselves is through an eating disorder. One in five women experience an eating disorder. Though eating disorders can occur in teenagers, and even younger children, it’s during the college years that young people, especially women, are most at risk.

When the added pressures of college collide with anxiety, learning issues and low self-esteem, a young woman who seemed to manage things well in high school might find herself overwhelmed when away from the support at home and in the complicated world of college. 

Full-blown eating disorders typically begin between the ages of 18 and 21 according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). An estimated 10 to 20% of women and 4 to 10% of men in college suffer from an eating disorder, and those rates are on the rise.

What leads to eating disorders? 

If a student has struggled with the need for control or perfection in her day-to-day life before college, the challenges can be greater once away at school. New schedule, new peers, new roommates, and managing food intake are just a few new demands that students face. Unhealthy eating habits and unscheduled and random meals can cause problems for anyone, but for students struggling with eating issues it can become a nightmare for self-control and self-esteem. Those who struggle with loneliness or confusion may turn on their bodies in reaction, seeing “fat” as the cause of their problems and attempting to starve or purge as a way to “fix it.”

Bulimia, or binge-eating, patterns can be triggered when students try and fail to stick to unreasonably restrictive diets. All-you-can-eat dining hall buffets and late night pizza makes it even more difficult to maintain a healthy diet. Slip-ups on a diet can lead to binges, which in turn bring on feelings of shame and guilt and a lack of control over the eating. Then the binge-eating is followed by purging (vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics), fasting, or excessive exercise.

College life is hugely focused on peer-interactions and students may use others as models for dangerous behavior. If friends or roommates are engaging in intensive dieting, binging and purging, over-exercising, or using laxatives, it can be all too easy to follow peers in these habits.

Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa

  • chronically inflamed and sore throat
  • swollen glands in the neck and below the jaw
  • worn tooth enamel and increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acids
  • gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD)
  • intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse
  • kidney problems from diuretic abuse
  • severe dehydration from purging of fluids

People with an eating disorder called anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight even though they are dangerously thin. Unusual eating habits develop, such as avoiding food and meals, picking out a few foods and eating these in small quantities, or carefully weighing and portioning food. 

Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa

  • thinning of the bones
  • brittle hair and nails
  • dry and yellowish skin
  • growth of fine hair over body
  • mild anemia and muscle weakness and loss
  • severe constipation
  • low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse
  • drop in internal body temperature, causing a person to feel cold all the time
  • lethargy
  • infrequent or absent menstrual periods

Eating disorders are serious, and can be life-threatening in some cases. These are not just extreme diets, they are real medical conditions that require medical treatment. 

The goal of treatment is to restore a healthy diet, restore adequate nutrition and a healthy weight, and stop unhealthy behaviors. Treatment plans include psychotherapy, medical care, and/or medications such as antidepressants, and nutritional and management and counseling.

A well-established, highly effective, and lasting treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy which focuses on identifying, understanding, and changing thinking and behavior patterns. Benefits are usually seen in 12 to 16 weeks, depending on the individual. Taking medications under a doctor’s supervision and joining a support group are also sound treatment options.

If you or someone you love shows any symptoms for anorexia or bulimia, please call 

National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237

Sources: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Psychological Association, and Child Mind Institute