Eating Disorders and College

We’ve all heard about the “Freshman 15” — those pesky pounds that seem to appear during the stressful first year of college. For some students, these extra pounds are eventually shed through normal exercise and healthy eating. For many others, however, this extra weight — whether it’s actually there or falsely perceived to be there — leads them to develop an eating disorder.

Eating disorders on college campuses are, unfortunately, very common. According to a recent poll by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 80.9 percent of college students have dieted, 74.7 percent have skipped meals, 44.4 percent have exercised compulsively, 38.8 percent have purged by vomiting, and 26 percent have used laxatives in order to lose weight. Even though experts have known for years that there is a high rate of eating disorders among college students, the results of the poll were very startling, proving that the number of young people on college campuses with eating disorders is much higher than published data reflects.

The three most common types of eating disorders on college campuses are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder (also known as compulsive overeating). Anorexia is characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss; bulimia is characterized by a cycle of binge eating followed by purging through vomiting, laxative abuse, or over-exercising; and binge eating disorder is characterized by periods of uncontrolled, impulsive or continuous eating beyond the point of feeling comfortably full, without purging. In addition to these clinically recognized eating disorders, a variety of disordered eating behaviors often exist in college students that may include a combination of some of the signs and symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. These disordered eating behaviors can cause just as serious emotional and physical problems as their medically recognized counterparts.

Although slightly different in nature, all of these disorders can have serious consequences if left untreated. In fact, statistics show that 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders will die from complications or suicide if they don’t receive treatment. Eating disorders are not just about a vain desire to be thin; they are a serious and medically recognized mental illness. Eating disorders develop as a way to gain control over and cope with emotional problems, stress, self-hate, shame and/or trauma. They can also develop over time as a result of underlying issues that, if left untreated, can lead to complex medical and psychiatric symptoms.

Treating eating disorders among college students is often done through an inpatient program. During inpatient treatment, individuals will live at a treatment facility and receive structured supervision and care for a period of time ranging from a few days to few months, depending on the severity of the student’s illness. Once the student is medically stable enough to continue recovery at home, he or she may be put in an outpatient program that only requires regular visits and appointments with his or her doctor, psychologist and nutritionist. While both treatment options have fundamental differences, they both will offer the same basic essentials, which usually include individual therapy, counseling, group support, nutritional counseling, and medication (if necessary). Since eating disorders often piggyback on other mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, students with a co-occurring disorder should seek treatment at an eating disorder treatment facility that provides dual diagnosis treatment so that both disorders can be properly addressed and treated.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, don’t wait. Eating disorders are a progressive mental illness that rarely gets better unless outside help is received. Talk with your doctor today or call an eating disorder treatment facility to discuss your — or your loved one’s — symptoms so that proper treatment can begin today.