Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder, pose a risk to college students’ physical and mental health. Despite eating disorders being more common among females, eating disorder prevalence in college has risen among both male and female students.1 This increase may be due to a number of triggering events, such as the stress of moving away to college, changes in sleep and eating habits, academic and financial stress, and adjusting to new routines. Similarly, there are a number of biological, psychological, and social risk factors for eating disorders.
The popular perception of eating disorders is that individuals are motivated primarily by a desire to be thin. While this may be true, research indicates that the mechanisms by which disordered eating develops or occurs are more complicated. Low self-esteem, how an individual sees their own value, and depression, may all have an impact on disordered eating.2 However, research among a college student sample found low self-esteem and depression alone does not lead to abnormal eating behavior.2 Body dissatisfaction, a negative view of one’s own body, was found to be a mediator between self-esteem and depression, suggesting that body dissatisfaction, in combination with low self-esteem and depression, may have an important role in the development of abnormal eating behavior.2
What can we do with this information? Understanding and being aware of some of the underlying psychological factors of eating disorders and abnormal eating behavior can help us help students. Eating disorders in college are often untreated or undiagnosed as students will typically hide their behavior. Low self-esteem and signs of depression may be easier to notice in a classroom than abnormal eating behavior. Reaching out to students, fostering a body positive environment, and providing them with resources (such as the Counseling Center) are a great way to support students who may be struggling with low self-esteem, depression, body dissatisfaction, or abnormal eating behavior.
For more information about eating disorders and signs of abnormal eating behavior, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.
1National Eating Disorders Association (2013). Eating disorders on the college campus. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/CollegeSurvey/CollegiateSurveyProject.pdf
2Lim, S. A., & You, S. (2017). Effects of self-esteem and depression on abnormal eating behavior among Korean female college students: Mediating role of body dissatisfaction. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26, 176-182. doi: 10.1007/s10826-016-0542-2