In an article about diet culture, an illustration of pills
Illustration by Tiphany Jackson, University of the Arts

Diet Culture Remains a Hazard for College Students

Stress, social pressures, newfound freedom and fear of the infamous ‘freshman 15’ create the perfect storm for the development of unhealthy eating habits.

College x
In an article about diet culture, an illustration of pills
Illustration by Tiphany Jackson, University of the Arts

Stress, social pressures, newfound freedom and fear of the infamous ‘freshman 15’ create the perfect storm for the development of unhealthy eating habits.

Among college students in the United States, restrictive eating disorders are rampant. This unfortunate reality can be largely attributed to the prevalence of diet culture, a social phenomenon that idealizes thinness, fosters food restriction and prioritizes appearance over wellness. With that being said, several factors contribute to the manifestation of diet culture in college environments. Notably, incoming college students are immersed in an entirely new environment, experiencing new social pressures and hierarchies, increased freedom and independence and an array of additional academic and social stressors. Furthermore, research has shown that eating disorders are most likely to develop among individuals ages 18 to 21. Together, these factors create the perfect storm for restrictive eating disorders to develop among college students.

Increased Freedom Surrounding Food

For many young adults, college brings unprecedented levels of freedom. Unlike in high school, college students experience a new degree of independence, free from parental supervision and criticism. Rather than being governed by family expectations and high school schedules, college students can create their own daily routines and define their own lifestyles. While this newfound freedom can be liberating and exciting, it also brings additional hardships, especially when it comes to eating.

College students are entirely in control of when they eat, what they eat and how much they eat. This independence can create a precarious situation, especially for college students who already struggle with body image issues and confidence. Increased levels of freedom surrounding food enable college students to engage in unhealthy eating habits, such as food restriction and unnecessary dieting. 

While students are away from home, it is almost impossible for parents to gain insight into their children’s relationship with food. Consequently, it is often very difficult for family members to identify eating disorders in college students. Most often, parents can only observe their college student’s full eating behaviors during breaks, holidays and vacations. By the time parents have the chance to notice that their child is dieting or restricting their calorie intake, a restrictive eating disorder may have already developed.

Fear of Weight Gain

Almost all freshmen in college are well aware of the infamous “freshman 15.” Weight gain is relatively common in college given the nature of college meal plans and the accessibility of fast food. However, many young adults are made to believe that the freshman 15 is inevitable and are deeply afraid that their physical appearance will drastically change. As a result, it is common for freshmen to enter college with an intense fear of gaining weight, predisposing them to dieting habits and disordered eating patterns. This is especially true for young adults who have preexisting body image challenges, body dysmorphia or a history of disordered eating. Given the dialogue surrounding “unavoidable” weight gain during college, incoming college freshmen are more likely to become obsessive in their eating and exercise behaviors and paranoid about changes in their appearance.

Furthermore, persistent fear of weight gain may lead to the development of body dysmorphia among college students. Despite having a BMI within the normal range, a high percentage of college-aged women experience body dysmorphia, with many believing they are overweight or obese. In fact, a survey of female students found that 43% practiced dieting, although 78% had perfectly healthy BMIs. This reality reflects college environments, which often foster comparison, insecurity and negative self-image, all of which increase the likelihood of dieting and restrictive eating disorders.

New Social Pressures

When entering college, young adults often experience increased insecurity surrounding their appearance and body image. Many college students — especially young women — feel significant social pressure to be thin. This is especially true for women who seek to participate in Greek life, where beauty and thinness are often seen as highly desirable qualities and may be prioritized over other traits. Unfortunately, for many college women, appearance and weight may very well dictate which social sorority they can join. Even after joining Greek life, women in sororities are more likely to engage in self-objectification, which involves judging their bodies from an outside perspective and feeling shame regarding their appearance. Regardless of participation in Greek life, the pressure to be perceived as attractive and desirable by one’s peers may increase the risk of developing restrictive eating habits in college.

Stress and Eating Behaviors

Being in a new, uncertain and unfamiliar environment, many young adults experience unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. Like other mental health challenges and mental health disorders, stress and anxiety are risk factors for the development of low self-esteem, as well as disordered eating patterns. Given the nature of college life, there are myriad new stressors that college students are likely to experience, increasing the likelihood of developing an eating disorder. This, too, may partially account for the prevalence of restrictive dieting and obsessive eating behaviors within college environments.

Dangers of Diet Culture

A healthy, balanced and guilt-free diet is essential for college students, whose brains and bodies are still developing. Eating disorders are particularly detrimental for adolescents and young adults, as their physical growth can be severely impeded by a lack of proper nourishment. Aside from the physical health risks, diet culture presents a profound threat to individuals’ mental health, as well. Most obviously, persistent dieting can lead to very negative relationships with food, which often result in full-fledged eating disorders.

One of the most harmful aspects of diet culture is that it prioritizes thinness and physical appearance over individuals’ overall health and well-being. Diet culture does not promote healthy eating but rather causes body insecurity, creates fear and guilt surrounding food and increases the chance of eating disorders. While diet culture is sometimes framed as reducing obesity and unhealthy eating, this is simply not true. Rather than dieting and restricting calorie intake, college students are far better off working toward healthy relationships with food and focusing on their holistic health and well-being.

Writer Profile

Nora Weiss

George Washington University
Political Science, Psychology

Nora Weiss is a rising junior at George Washington University. Writing has been a lifelong passion and tool for self-expression for Nora, and she is very excited to be part of the Study Breaks team.

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