New light is being shed on two eating disorder stereotypes: that the issue typically begins in adolescence, and that young girls are the sole sufferers. But studies are showing that many turn to disordered eating after arriving at college and take root between ages 18-20. Women remain the majority in terms of diagnosis, but a growing number of men are also showing signs of the disorder.
College life is a major step for most people, male or female. It usually represents the first time that a young adult is living on their own, taking full responsibility for choices and outcomes and trying out their own identities among a group of their peers who are also trying out what it means to be their own person.
College is a time of uncertainty. Will they make good grades? Will they be able to find a job after college? Will it be a career that they can enjoy long-term? College is also one step closer to marriage and family life. With so many new responsibilities and unknowns, students may experience new levels of anxiety.
Some anxious students may try to quell that worry by taking firm control of at least one area of their life: food. Having a sense of control in this one area, will supposedly offset the fears in all of their other less-controllable areas of life. That is the underlying thinking, flawed as it may be.
Added to all of this is the notion that college women may be more perfectionistic than their non-college-attending peers. Perfectionism is a known risk factor for eating disorders. It should also be noted that young men and women are interacting socially with the opposite sex more frequently than ever before during college. The feeling that one must look their best can heighten any tendencies to obsess over exercise, food intake and appearance.
The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that as many as 20 percent of all college students struggle with some form of eating disorder. The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) suggest that 25 percent of college students are affected. Since so few students look for help, the actual percentage could actually be even higher.
Young people may not seek out help for their eating disorder because they feel ashamed. But, according to NIMH, nearly half (48 percent) don’t reach out because they simply do not think anything is wrong. Obsessive dieting, drunkorexia and other maladaptive behaviors may be so common as to appear within the norm.
Although eating disorders do mostly affect females, men suffer as well. NIMH sets the ratio of men affected by eating disorders at 10-15 percent of all cases. While some men do struggle with the same disorders as women – bulimia, anorexia and binge eating disorder – a significant number of them have a different issue. Many are fixated on looking trim, not skinny, but also well-muscled and “ripped.” These men show other symptoms similar to female eating disorders, such as obsessing over food choices, being preoccupied with exercise regimens and use of muscle-enhancing supplements like creatine.
College campuses are places of tremendous change. Some young people can absorb the changes and move forward without a glitch. For others, the sea changes can become a trigger for unhealthy coping mechanisms. The notable number of co-eds who are using food and body image to control anxiety indicates that colleges will need to step up their game in terms of mental health services – both in terms of awareness and treatment availability.