Mandy a 19-year-old from Levittown, Pa., is packing her bags for college. “I feel like I am ready now. After all I spent my freshman year at Renfrew University,” she jokes, referring to the Philadelphia eating disorders center, “How much harder can it be at Temple than it was at Renfrew?”
Although Mandy displays some needed levity around her year-long battle with anorexia, which developed when she went to college for the first time, eating disorders in the college-age crowd are not a joke. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are endemic to college campuses, especially among freshman. Many return from their first year of college with stories of vomit backing up communal toilets, friends trading diet pills like baseball cards, and sorority sisters who have slimmed to near emaciated states.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25 percent of college students (one out of every 10 of them male) develop eating disorders, as compared with one to five percent of the general population. The reasons for these disturbing statistics are interesting.
“I felt overwhelmed at college almost from the get go,” says Mandy. “I didn’t fit in with the party crowd and had trouble making friends. The classes were harder than I thought, and I was no longer the best student. Food was the only thing that I could control.”
College can be stressful. There are academic and peer pressures. Students are often away from home for the first time. There is also the sense that of being a small fish in a big pond, and sometimes students who had excelled academically and socially are no longer “special.” They may use the eating disorder as a way to compete with others (“If I can’t get the highest grade in the class, at least I can be the skinniest”) or as a way to exert control.
There is also the dreaded freshman 15. With the abundance of food available in the dining hall, many students overindulge, resulting in weight gain. They often learn unhealthy compensatory behaviors – such as purging and laxative abuse – from peers.
To combat these stresses, it is important for those who are college bound to be aware warning signs of eating disorders, and seek help if they notice them. These include:
· Frequently weighing oneself (more than 1/week)
· Mood changes based on the scale
· Strict ideas of “good” and “bad” foods
· Avoidance of socializing if it involves food
· Guilt after overeating
· Skipping meals or purging as a way to diet
· Abusing diet pills or laxatives
· Preoccupation with food and calories
Embark on the college experience with healthy expectations. It takes time to adjust to new people and a new environment. Most college campuses have counselors available to help when things seem difficult.
The following article initially appeared September, 2010, and is reprinted by popular demand. Please see the archive for other helpful columns on eating disorders.