The True Cost of Calorie Counting: Eating Disorders in College

In the last decade, the prevalence of unhealthy and disordered eating habits have increased dramatically among college-aged students in the U.S. who are 18-25 years old. According to a 2013 study by the National Eating Disorders Association, the percentage of women with eating disorders increased from 23% to 32%, and the percentage of men with eating disorders increased from 7.9% to 25% over a 13-year period. Additionally, the percentage of students eating according to a specialized weight loss diet increased from 4.2% to 22%. While weight loss is not a bad thing when done in a healthy manner, it is important to ensure that student culture promotes healthy eating habits rather than simply focus on quick weight loss.

Eating disorders can manifest into serious illnesses that require treatment to help those suffering return to healthy eating habits. Unfortunately, 80-90% of those who screen positive for an eating disorder do not seek treatment.As eating disorders can affect anyone, it is necessary to recognize that symptoms can vary across different sexualities and gender presentations. Male-identifying students are significantly less likely to be treated for eating disorders, regardless of how clinically severe their conditions they may be. This is because symptoms of eating disorders tend to present differently in male-identifying students than they do in female-identifying students. While the stereotypical eating disorder patient may suffer from anorexia or bulimia nervosa, men are subject to very different body standards, often looking to gain muscle mass rather than to shed pounds. This can lead to the overuse of protein supplements or steroid use, as well as engagement in excessive exercise.

Additionally, homosexuality among men is a specific risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. Recent research reports a strong association between homosexuality or bisexuality and the prevalence of eating disorders, specifically bulimia nervosa. This research also suggests that being a part of the transgender community leads to a higher risk of eating disorders. While the reason for this association is still unknown, researchers believe that the increased stress this community faces is a strong contributor to the development of unhealthy eating habits.

The transition to college is difficult, and often a place where unhealthy behaviors can be exacerbated due to the increased responsibilities students face. Eating disorders are no different: students are now responsible for feeding themselves and are often confronted with a change in their eating habits, which may be affected by their dietary comparisons with the food choices of their peers. Many students are not only faced with seemingly unlimited access to the dining halls and other food sources, but they must also navigate the student culture surrounding food, which is vulnerable to the normalization of eating disorders in college.

Certain phrases and behaviors deemed as “normal” within college culture can contribute to the development of unhealthy eating patterns. An example is the tendencies among college freshmen to starve themselves before parties to “have more fun” or “look better” in outfits. Another common belief is that not eating meals before parties “cancels out” the calories consumed on a “night out.” “Pulling trig,” or deliberate vomiting after a night of binge drinking, is a pervasive practice at college parties. Not only are these phrases and beliefs unhealthy, but they can also promote and normalize deleterious behaviors associated with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Efforts to dispel the ideas or intentions behind such harmful phrases can help combat the prevalence of eating disorders across college campuses.

While the aforementioned phrases are often intertwined with drinking culture across university campuses, there are also harmful stereotypes and behaviors that do not necessarily stem from attending parties. A famous example is the notion of the notorious “Freshman 15.” This phrase refers to the weight gain commonly associated with a student’s first year in college. However, this stereotype is simply not true: according to recent research, freshmen only gained an average of 2.5 to 3.5 pounds during their first year. The intense cultural focus on a false stereotype promotes an unnecessary and damaging diet culture among impressionable college students.

Finally, the competitive nature among UC Berkeley’s student population may also seep into lifestyle behaviors. Students frequently brag about how little sleep they got the previous night, or how they were “too busy to eat.” Meal substitutes like Soylent are also incredibly popular among the student body, reinforcing the idea that physical wellness is secondary to students’ performance in academia or extracurriculars.

For students struggling with their relationships with food or body, the Berkeley community offers specialty counseling designed to mitigate eating disorders. The information can be found here.