College Life: Unhealthy Eating or Eating Disorder?

Cafeterias, all-you-can-eat buffets and late night pizza deliveries are just a few of the temptations facing college freshman as they adjust to their new found freedom and life on their own for the first time. Weight gain and poor eating habits are the likely outcomes for many, but a growing number of college students, primarily females, suffer from eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.   

College life is stressful, and some students have more difficulty than others trying to cope with a new routine and environment. When life becomes overwhelming, some focus on food, weight and calories as a way to exert control over a life that seems out of control. In some cases, the stress can lead to overeating or making poor food choices. In more extreme cases, a person will purposely withhold food or binge and then purge. While there is no single known cause, eating disorders can develop based on any of these factors: 
  • Societal pressure to be thin
  • Family and close friends' attitudes about appearance and diet
  • Stressful or life changing events
  • Emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression

While many college students have an actual diagnosed eating disorder, even more students develop unhealthy eating habits and an unhealthy relationship with food. Often, it's the work hard-play hard culture of college life that can promote unhealthy eating. Signs you may have an eating disorder: 
  • Making yourself throw up after meals
  • Moving food around on your plate but not eating anything
  • Eating very small amounts of only certain foods
  • Taking diet pills
  • Not eating or eating very little
  • Counting calories, weighing food and obsessing about everything you eat

Eating disorders can turn into serious medical problems. When the body is denied important nutrients to function normally, long term negative effects can include: 
  • Increased risk of osteoporosis
  • Abnormally slow heart rate and low blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness and loss
  • Dehydration that can result in hypokalemia (low blood potassium) and kidney failure
  • Fatigue, weakness, dry hair and skin, and hair loss
  • An ongoing cycle of binging and purging can affect the entire digestive system and lead to electrolyte imbalances, tooth decay, inflammation of the esophagus and ulcers

The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that nearly 20% of college students suffer from some type of eating disorder.  Due to their complexity, treatment for eating disorders requires medical attention as well as professional counseling. If you or someone you know shows signs of an eating disorder, talk to a counselor, visit the campus health clinic, or even join a support group on campus. To find a provider or facility near you, download the free iTriage medical app or visit
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