Students at Higher Risks for Eating Disorders

Twenty percent of women and ten percent of men suffer from eating disorders in college, and social media doesn’t help, according to mental health experts. 

“The core of an eating disorder usually isn’t about being skinny or fat – no matter how much someone tells them they look ok, they might not believe it themselves,” said Emma Shafer, a senior at the University of Southern California suffering from an eating disorder.

There are many types of eating disorders, but all consist of abnormal eating habits usually caused by an obsession with weight, body appearance, and food. As 30 million people have eating disorders in the United States alone, this is a serious issue that can cause many lifelong detrimental health effects and even death.

“Some people may see eating disorders as phases, fads or lifestyle choices, but they’re actually serious mental disorders,” said Alina Petre, a registered dietician at Healthline.

Anorexia nervosa is the most common eating disorder where, generally women, feel they are overweight, even when they are severely underweight. This constant need to be thin breaks people emotionally, physically, and psychologically.

Anthony Cabral said that his “friend developed anorexia during college. She is one of the fastest runners I know, but in order to maintain her records, she has resulted to very unhealthy eating habits.” Cabral said, “I think this is due to unrealistic expectations of the ways bodies should look and the immense amount of pressure on young adults today.”

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders start to develop in people ages 18 to 21. This range reflects most of the college demographic. Today, college puts so much pressure on students to succeed and have an active social life, all while adjusting to a new environment away from home.

Shafer said, “When you move away from home there is a lack of accountability and supervision, lack of consistent and structured meals, as well as stress without having your parents. Also, alcohol and freshman eating definitely contribute to both weight gain and stress around weight gain. Everyone is talking about it and your body is changing as a young person. It’s very hard to adjust. The worry around these subjects can provide a point to fixate on. The beginning of college is so much change in general that it may bring up these behaviors.”

Many people with eating disorders over-exercise, go on extreme diets and try to make themselves throw-up just to lose weight. This increase in stress results in controlled eating or binge eating as the only way for people with these disorders to cope.

In addition, “social media has been shown to increase body dissatisfaction which is a risk factor for eating disorders,” said Lauren Smolar, Director of Programs at the NEDA.

The media portrays women having this “perfect” body. Usually, this is a tall and very skinny girl, but the truth is this is not realistic. Girls are lacking confidence and are trying to change the way they look to represent this body.

“Confidence is something else though that is 100% in your control,” said Victoria Garrick, who overcame her eating disorder and conquered body-image stereotypes. “Try to notice the voice inside of your head, and without judging it or getting upset with yourself, just evaluate if it is helpful or hurtful to who you want to be/what you want to accomplish.”

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Victoria Garrick practicing mindfulness, a tool she used to get over her eating disorder.

Shafer said, “backpacking and hiking fill my cup and allow me to return my confidence when I am not feeling great. Also, yoga, walking with friends, journaling, therapy, music, and podcasts lower my stress and help me cope.”

If you or a loved one is concerned about someone struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to the NEDA Helpline for support options. Often times, young people can take years to ask for help.

Smolar said, “part of the disorder causes people to feel like they aren’t sick enough or deserving of help. This can make admitting you need support especially challenging but we recommend people seek help as soon as possible.”

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Emma Shafer backpacking in the Sierras.

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Shafer hiking with friends.

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