Campus Culture Normalizes Disordered Eating

Dangerous relationships with food happen even outside of eating disorders

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by Aaron Falls / Garnet & Black

Being a college student doesn't mean it's normal to power through the whole day with just an iced coffee. Many of aspects of the college lifestyle actually reflectdisordered eating behaviors. According to the "National Eating Disorders Collaboration," disordered eating refers to a multitude of eating disorder behaviors and symptoms that don't match the full criteria for an eating disorder. Examples include fasting, bingeing and restriction, and these behaviors can evolve into a full-fledged eating disorder.

Unfortunately, these behaviors are common among students. According to research from the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, 49% of college women and 30% of college men struggled with binge eating, and 31% of college women and 29% of college men struggled with compensatory behaviors. Binge eating is a loss of control over when eating, while behaviors seek to avoid weight gain through unhealthy means like vomiting, diet pills, laxatives, or excessive exercise. In a survey conducted by Garnet and Black, 28.5% of 49 UofSC students reported binge eating during their time at Carolina.

According to registered dietician Olivia Sullivan, students do not need to experience extreme weight loss or other hallmark signs of disordered eating to engage in disordered behaviors. “Most often, students begin skipping meals or modify their diet in a way to produce weight loss, which can spiral into disordered behaviors if they are unable to break away from their food rules. Additionally, over-exercise (generally greater than 300 minutes per week for a non-athlete) can be considered disordered in certain circumstances,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan highlighted research done in 2019 by Student Health Services and the National College Health Association to emphasize the prevalence of these behaviors. UofSC students participated in a survey called the SCOFF Questionnaire that screens disordered eating behaviors. Sullivan reports, “One in four students surveyed had a score of 2 or greater, indicating that disordered behaviors may be present.”

Disordered eating grips college campus so easily because university culture presents it as normal. When we first move into the dorms and live under our own reigns, we have more control over our food than we have ever had. Food isn’t restricted to what our parents were cooking; we have access to buffets of food 24/7. Students start to realize they may not have the control over our eating that they thought they had. 

The added stress of avoiding the mythological "Freshman 15" quickly dampens our enjoyment of newfound food freedom. Some students feel the need to compensate for a large dining hall breakfast with a missed lunch to escape the dreaded first-year weight gain. An alarming 96% of students responded to Garnet and Black's survey that the Freshman 15 distressed them upon their arrival to campus. 

Then, we’re thrust into a large party atmosphere that pressures us to drink copious amounts of alcohol. We ask a friend to grab dinner before a night out, but they say they’re “saving” their calories for alcohol. This behavior  is often called “drunkorexia,” and it runs rampant on campuses. A study from York University found that 46% of students consciously manipulated their eating behaviors to accommodate drinking. Our survey found that 28.5% of UofSC students restrict calories before drinking. While disordered eating is stereotypically associated with females, research from the Journal of College Counseling found that while females were more likely to exhibit “drunkorexia” traits, there were a comparable number of males in the group. 

The college party atmosphere also leaves some students feeling pressured to look a certain way in revealing clothes. This can also cause students to skip meals before going out or even crash diet the week before a big event like formal. 

As if the “Freshman 15” fear-mongering and partying stressors weren’t enough, college students face another beast: productivity culture. Highly motivated students seem to compete for who can deny their bodily and mental needs the most to accomplish the most possible in any given day. “I don’t have time to eat” is seen more as a flex than a concern. Of the UofSC students surveyed, 44.8% admitted to avoiding eating to study. 

Because we have come to view these issues within the culture of productivity, these behaviors have become completely normalized, if not glamorized. Just because “everybody’s doing it” doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. At the end of a day, you wouldn’t call an eating disorder “normal,” so why should its symptoms be? 

The first step we can take to combat this culture is to set a positive example and avoid language that feeds into it. Of course, speak up when you need help, but sprinkling your disordered eating behaviors in a conversation can be triggering to others or send them down the wrong path. Casually telling a friend you spent eight hours on Sunday in the library with only an iced coffee only normalizes putting taking care of your body as a low-level priority. If your intention is not solely to find support, remove skipping meals from your list of talking points. 

When these behaviors many of us students commonly practice are weaved into everyday conversations, it hurts more than just us. Imagine how many students have overheard someone visibly thinner than them express their fear of the Freshman 15. Who wants to hear that others are afraid to look like them? 

In order to combat this culture, students must do their job to avoid being misled. "Students can help to change diet culture and disordered eating messages by seeking validated nutrition information. Students should seek nutrition information from Registered Dietitians, public health educators, and websites such as choosemyplate.gov or eatright.org. Students should not seek nutrition information from untrained individuals, personal trainers, or anyone trying to sell a meal plan or weight loss products," Sullivan said. 

Student Health Services can connect students to scientifically-supported nutrition information. If you are concerned with maintaining a healthy diet, the Healthy Eating Group or Wellness coaching are great options. Sullivan adds, “If a student is seeking assistance in managing a chronic health disorder they can call the health center to make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. If they are seeking treatment for an eating disorder they can begin by scheduling a Triage appointment with the counseling department.”

The best we can do is educate and support. Let your friends know they may be practicing disordered eating behaviors and encourage them to seek out help from the student health center. You yourself may want to consider booking an appointment. The Counseling and Psychiatry unit can be reached at 803-777-5223.

Other Support: 

If you or a friend is struggling with disordered eating consider reaching out to these organizations: 

(800)-931-2237 – National Eating Disorders Helpline

(630)-577-1330 – National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Helpline




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