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15 Alarming Facts About Eating Disorders in College

by Staff Writers

Despite the bounty of information at its disposal, mainstream society still doesn’t exactly understand mental illness…

Eating disorders especially end up on the receiving end of frequent stereotyping and misunderstanding — a very dangerous phenomenon, considering how they can quickly turn fatal when left unchecked. College students comprise the condition’s largest demographic, so educating both students and the society they inhabit is crucial for their health, happiness and safety. By no means should one take this article as anything even remotely approaching medical advice. Rather, use it as an introduction to a few facts about bulimia, anorexia, binge eating disorder and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). From here, make further inquiries into the realities faced by sufferers and the people who love them. Making an effort to empathize with their plight might very well save lives someday.

  1. It’s not just women who suffer: Eating disorders are often stereotyped as the exclusive realm of the ladyfolk — a dangerous mindset preventing male victims from receiving necessary psychotherapy. In reality, between 1% and 7% of college-age men suffer from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or EDNOS. But the numbers might actually sit higher than that, as stigmas unfairly painting the diseases as inherently feminine prevent them from admitting the problem and seeking out the mental help needed to survive.

  2. The staggering majority of female college students diet: Ninety-one percent in fact, regardless of whether or not they genuinely need to be concerned about their weight. Not all diets are eating disorders, nor do all eating disorders manifest themselves as extreme dieting. Such conditions don’t always necessarily stem from a desire to be thin, of course, but overlap does occur. Some cases — though in no way every — do begin life as obsessive dieting, so it is relevant to look at statistics reflecting this.

  3. College women are even more vulnerable to eating disorders than one would think: By this point, most people are aware that women between the ages of 17 and 24 are the most likely to be treated for and diagnosed with an eating disorder. In the general public, the statistic posits about 15% of this demographic suffers. But once college factors into the equation, it shoots up to 40%. Hardly surprising, considering the significant amount of stress involved — especially in cases where eating disorders manifest as a coping mechanism.

  4. It’s often comorbid with other disorders: In college and the real world alike, eating disorders rarely wreak havoc alone. Anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and EDNOS usually co-exist with depression, anxiety, substance abuse and/or compulsive issues. Oftentimes, the symptoms associated with these conditions are signs of something larger and more serious at play than just problems with diet and nutrition. Social stigmas against anything above a size 6 are only a very minute facet of a far more complex mental health problem.

  5. Relationships impact eating disorders: And not just those where one or more partners spout off abusive rhetoric about body shape and size, either. Individuals in unhealthy relationships, whether they be overly clingy or outright physically traumatic, run a much higher risk of suffering from eating disorders than their peers enjoying more stable ones. The depression and anxiety associated with such unfortunate arrangements can trigger these conditions as a means of calming and forgetting the issue at hand.

  6. Sexual assault and rape victims are more likely to develop eating disorders: This correlation exists outside of college campuses, however, but the demographic most vulnerable to eating disorders also happens to be more likely to end up sexually assaulted and raped. Thanks to an unforgiving society that shames and guilt trips female and male victims alike, anxiety and depression run rampant. So it makes sense that eating disorders would also plague them at a higher rate, as bulimia, anorexia and the like provide immediate (albeit unhealthy and nonviable) comfort for a persistent problem.

  7. Binging and purging may correlate with previous suicide attempts: At least one study suggests that eating disorder victims engaging in a binge-and-purge pattern are more likely to have previously attempted suicide. Those with anorexia are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts. Again, a broader study sheds considerable light on the experiences of a smaller demographic. Because of the staggering amount of college students crushed beneath eating disorders, it makes sense that many of them would suffer from the accompanying suicidal ideas and behaviors as well.

  8. Nutrition facts can actually trigger victims: Newsweek ran an article about eating disorders on campus in 2009, opening with a particularly poignant perspective most people — in college or otherwise — might never consider. For the eating disordered, seeing campuses publicly display nutrition facts run the risk of triggering trauma during the recovery period. Those whose conditions manifest themselves as obsessive dieting and calorie-counting are especially vulnerable, as exposure to such information reminds them of their destructive obsession. Harvard University removed calorie count cards from its dining halls out of respect for its disordered students.

  9. A staggering amount of victims vomit, resort to extreme diets and/or use laxatives: Whether suffering from bulimia, anorexia, EDNOS or some combination thereof, 38% of college students (both male and female) have forced vomiting, used laxatives and/or extreme vomiting in order to lose weight. Researchers think an increased emphasis on combating obesity might influence their harsh decisions, although plenty of other issues — such as the previously-mentioned depression, anxiety and sexual violence victimhood factor into it as well.

  10. A fringe eating disorder movement actively encourages the disease: Neither the Pro-Ana nor Pro-Mia movements typically go out and recruit members, but they do dangerously encourage disordered eating habits. Most — but not all — adherents are either in college or of college age, and the philosophy paints the truly horrifying disease as a lifestyle choice to be accepted rather than a mental illness to be treated. Communities both online and off trade "thinspiration" pictures, advice and encouragement for the fastest (and oftentimes most devastating) weight loss tips. It’s an extremely destructive mindset, one colleges must take more seriously and address more often.

  11. Binge eating disorder is a real thing: Most individuals and organizations typically think of bulimia and anorexia when the subject of eating disorders crop up. But binge eating disorder — an often overlooked member of the family — can also cause serious problems during the college years (and beyond). Stemming from the exact same anxiety, depression and stress as conditions seeking thinness, BED instead involves taking in too much food as a coping mechanism.

  12. Twenty is the most common age of onset: Around 86% of bulimics estimate they first experienced symptoms at age 20. Between the ages of 16 and 20, the number drops to 43%. By freshmen year, between 4.5% and 18% of female and .4% of male students start classes with a history of bulimia, compared to 1% for women with anorexia. Once again, the reasons behind why this happens are as varied as the victims themselves, though the dangers remain the same.

  13. Anorexia and bulimia kill more than people realize: Between 10% and 25% of anorexia patients die because of complications arising from the condition. The full recovery rate of eating disorders in general sits at a sadly low 60%, with 20% only partially coming back and 20% never healing at all — or making only negligible progress.

  14. Race might have an effect on how eating disorders manifest: Research published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders noted at least one difference in the way weight loss-related eating disorders occur in white and African-American female college students. Many members of the latter demographic typically struggled with real weight and size problems and suffered worse the more they absorbed themselves in mainstream society. Their Caucasian counterparts rarely experienced onset because of a preexisting weight condition. Both, however, frequently exhibited the signs and symptoms of depressive, anxiety or compulsive issues alongside their eating disorders.

  15. Online intervention might be a valid prevention option: For the harried, college-aged eating disordered, an online psychiatric regimen might very well pique their recovery. Developed at Stanford University, the online program sought out high-risk women — specifically, college-aged women — and effectively prevented many from slipping into anorexia, bulimia or EDNOS. Participants with a BMI at 25 or over did not develop any eating disorder symptoms after 2 years, compared to 11.9% of their peers. Amongst women already suffering the early stages, 14% ended up diagnosed with an eating disorder within 2 years, compared to 30% of nonparticipants. The program, consisting of reading materials, moderated discussions and daily journals, might very well fulfill a valuable role on college campuses and beyond.