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The food fight in higher education: Ending eating disorders on college campuses

It has become increasingly apparent that alcohol and drug abuse has been on the rise on college campuses. It is not as widely known that eating disorders are as much of an epidemic at the college level as drug and alcohol abuse. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “10.9 percent of surveyed college-aged students met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.” A similar survey by the National Institute of Mental Health reveals that 25 percent of all college students struggle with disordered eating. One in 10 students struggles with alcohol abuse, whereas one in four struggles with an eating disorder. Which begs the question, if there are so many resources for college-aged students to turn to in regard to alcohol dependence, where are the resources for individuals struggling with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorders?

A student at Colgate University recovering from anorexia nervosa shared in an interview with Fox News her hypothesis on the increasing epidemic. “I think it’s getting worse because disordered eating habits have become so normalized. Just the idea of people not eating dinner so they can go out drinking, or only having an apple for lunch so they can go out to dinner.” Behaviors like this do nothing but reinforce the idea that disordered eating habits are not only acceptable, but encouraged.

Several factors make college students more susceptible to developing an eating disorder, including the psychological, interpersonal and social factors that align themselves with the collegiate lifestyle. Psychological influences include the onset of depression, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy or lack of control that come from a highly rigorous academic setting. Dianne Aubin, intake coordinator for New Dawn Eating Disorder Recovery Center, elaborates on how the stress of college can result in disordered eating. “You get an A for success and an F for failure… it is competitive and can make a person think of themselves as a number, whether it is a GPA or BMI [Body Mass Index].” In terms of eating disorders, weight gain is an F whereas weight loss is a higher grade.

Interpersonal factors include troubled family and personal relationships, and history of sexual assault. Since one in four college women has experienced either a completed or attempted sexual assault, it is no wonder that they are seeking to take control over their life by all means possible, including restricted and disordered eating. Social factors that contribute to eating disorders include the cultural pressure that glorifies the idea of being thin, as opposed to glorifying people for their inner beauty and strength.

Director of counseling services at Colgate University, Dr. Mark Thompson, declares, “We need to emphasize the right qualities in people, like their intelligence or how good a friend they are.” The attention of college students should not solely rest on appearances, but on the qualities that make a person innately, undeniably and unapologetically themselves.

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