Do Eating Disorders Thrive on College Campuses?

What steps can SLU take?

The transition from living at home to an independent lifestyle at college is a big change for students, and one of the biggest hurdles is creating a healthy food balance. Living independently means making your own food options and providing your body with the food it needs.  Shifting from a life where meals are already on the table (for some, not all), can be overwhelming when moving directly into a dorm, where there is typically no kitchen and the meal options consist of whatever is available on-campus that day. Dorms generally don’t accommodate a lifestyle fit for nutritional meals. From the shared mini-fridge to the lack of kitchen appliances, there isn’t much room to cook up a hearty and satisfying meal. These conditions can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, and in crucial circumstances lead to eating disorders. 

   In a study done by NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) eating disorders tend to arise between the ages of 18-21. Further research states that approximately 10-20% of college students suffer from eating disorders, with a higher number for women. 

   Eating disorder culture on college campuses arises for several reasons. The school may not be providing enough nutritional options, but they can also result from an unhealthy diet culture or body image issues. SLU’s Dietetic Internship Director and Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics, Rabia Rahman, Ph.D, shared her thoughts on the issue impacting college students everywhere:  “Oftentimes, when the stress of college and being away from home feels like a lot, eating disorders become a coping mechanism and a way to control something when other aspects of life feel more out of their hands.” This cycle of eating disorders can be difficult to break once started. That being said, is there a way that colleges can stop it before it starts, and should colleges be responsible for providing an environment where this doesn’t arise?

   Many in the SLU community have voiced their concern regarding food-related issues on campus. An anonymous survey posted by the University News Instagram asked the question,” Does SLU provide a healthy balance with their food options on campus?” The results, unsurprisingly, revealed that 79% said no. In a further anonymous questionnaire, students detail the struggles they have encountered with campus-food difficulties. One response stated, “I feel gross when I eat on campus, and it makes me sad.” For many with eating disorders, calorie counting is a trigger and often releases negative thoughts in an individual’s brain that can stop them from fully indulging in deserved meals. One individual’s response pointed out, “I hate that most vending machines have (a) calorie count on them. Also, the Sodexo app showing calories is frustrating. I wish I could turn it off.” Calorie counting further pushes dangerous eating-disorder-related behavior. 

   Although SLU is a predominantly white institution there is still a population of students that have religious and cultural dietary needs. Many Muslims have had trouble finding Halal meat options and many Hindus struggle with vegan/vegetarian options. One response from the questionnaire said, “As a POC/non-cis afab [assigned female at birth] being on campus has made my ED worse, and other POC agree.” There is an understanding that accommodating every single culture’s food can be difficult, but changes should be made to better meet the culinary needs of SLU’s student body. 

   Lastly, a number of responses repeated the same concern of skipping meals to avoid the options provided. One individual responded, “More people are choosing not to eat period than to go to Grand.” Another individual says, “I went from three meals at home to eating one that’s barely a meal while living on campus.”

These concerns have been heard and SLU is working to address them. Rahman added, “I feel a registered dietician in the dining halls is also helpful. I have always felt that a registered dietician should be part of first-year orientation where they walk through the dining halls and help students evaluate how to make healthier choices or make the most of their meal plans. I also feel there should be regularly scheduled dining hall “tours” with the dietician to answer questions students might have.” 

   SLU can also work with the student body to distinguish what the true needs of the students are. SLU students should always remember that cultivating a healthy relationship with food is strenuous, and doing so in the unfamiliar environment of college is exponentially more difficult. What you eat does not define you. The guilt will pass, and your body deserves to be fed.

“Although SLU is a predominantly white institution there is still a population of students that require religious and cultural needs. Many Muslims have had trouble finding Halal meat options and many Hindus struggle with vegan/vegetarian options.”