Eating Disorders and College: What’s the Connection?

November 03, 2019

The beginning of fall is often associated with the start of a new school year and for many the transition to their first year of college. While this transition is usually an exciting time, it can also bring about increased levels of stress, anxiety, and overall unfamiliar territory. “Historically, September and October have been my busiest times as an eating disorder specialist, notes Dr. Cornia, Clinical Director at Magnolia Creek. The upcoming college transition coupled with high overall stress prompts many to reach out for help.”

Why do college students develop eating disorders?

The National Eating Disorders Association estimates the total number of eating disorders increased from 23-32% among females and from 7.9% to 25% among males over a 13-year period. Also, eating disorders typically develop between the ages of 18 and 21 years of age. The realities of college life such as leaving home, increased independence, increased workload, separation from friends and family, and the pressure for academic achievement can collide anxiety, depression, or negative body image, all of which can be contributing factors for the emergence of eating disordered behaviors. College is a new place of excitement, and for many it is difficult to suddenly navigate the adult world and begin managing alone.

For those that are at risk for an eating disorder or have an eating disorder, college life can make it much more difficult. Learning to manage new food routines and intake can be difficult for anyone. However, for those with an eating disorder, the unscheduled and unhealthy eating can impact self-control and self-esteem. Additionally, many will find themselves falling victim to the pressure to engage in intensive diets, binging and purging, over-exercising, or using aids such as laxatives to rid themselves of calories.

How dangerous are eating disorders?

Eating disorders claim a life every 62 minutes, the second highest mortality rate of any mental illness. In the US, 30 million people suffer from an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating.

Treatment for Eating Disorders on the College Campus

The significant rise in college students with eating disorders has fortunately been met with an increase in eating disorder-specific campus resources. According to Dr. Cornia, many college counseling centers have reached out to her for eating disorder resources and training, “Many universities are recognizing this need and are becoming more versed in eating disorder treatment and establishing a multi-disciplinary team of professionals to help educate students on eating disorders, as well as refer students who need appropriate eating disorder treatment. This type of collaboration combined with effective treatment is essential.”

Most college campuses also provide psychological, medical, and nutritional counseling. According to a study by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, each year college students request more mental health services. They also estimated that 95% of schools reported an increase in students needing and accessing mental health services.

Studies show that students who receive therapeutic and dietary assistance at the onset of eating disorder symptoms recover faster than those individuals who do not receive help or wait longer. Although this highlights the value of quick, effective interventions, for some there are barriers to seeking treatment.

  • Denial or unaware that an eating disorder exists
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Embarrassed to seek treatment
  • Lack of support
  • Lack of treatment resources
  • Worry about the anonymity of treatment
  • Fear that education will be compromised
  • Concern over peer’s judgment
  • Lack of knowledge by college staff about where to refer students

While these emotions and behaviors are undoubtedly valid, they can be diffused by self-acknowledgment, and self-disclosure. An eating disorder does not have to mean the end of college or independence. It is important to support students and help them to make proper treatment a priority. Recovery from an eating disorder may be challenging at times, but with a team of professionals and hard work, recovery is always possible.

College can be an exciting time, don’t let yourself or a loved one suffer from an eating disorder.

Magnolia Creek is located just outside of Birmingham, AL, and provides comprehensive care to adult women who struggle with feeding or eating disorders. Dually licensed as an eating disorder and mental health treatment center, Magnolia Creek can tailor a dual diagnosis program for co-occurring mental health conditions. For more information, please visit