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Nutrition and Disordered Eating at College: Why Do Students Eat Differently in College?

Going to college changes students' eating habits. Food is never the same on a college campus as it is at home. College is often the first time teenagers are living away from home, and this independence brings with it new responsibilities. Additionally, students face new stressors, such as living with strangers and academic pressures.


The phrase "freshman fifteen" is often used to describe the weight gain new college students experience. Although most students do not in fact gain fifteen pounds, many gain some weight. This can happen from normal changes in the body, new eating habits, or disordered eating. Other students actually lose weight, due to the same range of reasons. In both cases, the college environment influences food intake.


Disordered eating in college students is pretty common. Most college students will encounter peers or classmates with disordered eating. What is it about college that leads to changes in eating habits and disordered eating among college students?


college student eating a meal

College Students' Disordered Eating: Why Does College Change Eating Habits?


Uncertainty About Food Availability


When at home, teenagers are in a familiar food environment. The food culture they grew up with is familiar, the foods in the cabinets are expected, and the eating schedule is on the routine they know. When they are in college, there is never that same food certainty. The foods may be unfamiliar. The foods they are used to eating at certain meals are not offered. Sometimes the food is not appealing to them. Sometimes they don't even have time to go all the way to the cafeteria to eat. This food environment leads to a perception of food scarcity. When acceptable food is available in an otherwise food-scarce environment, people tend to eat more out of fear of possible inadequate food in the future.


No Homemade Food


As soon as teenagers get to college, they go from eating homemade meals frequently to rarely eating homemade foods. Although, with enough planning, fast food can be nutritionally adequate, homemade meals tend to be more likely to be nutritious compared to fast food. Many students are not used to planning dinner meals like the adults in their home do, so meals may become less varied and missing food groups.


Stress


College comes with new academic pressures, and many students find these pressures stressful and anxiety-provoking. It is no secret that stress can alter eating habits! Some people eat more when they are stressed, and other people eat less when they are stressed. Late night study sessions can come with late night snacking. Other students deal with the academic pressures by not giving themselves time to go to the cafeteria, and they end up missing meals to study.


Social Pressures


A lot of new social pressures come with living with new peers. Before college, teenagers are often exposed to diet culture in the media and at school. But when living on a college, students are watching what their peers do from the moments they wake up until they go to sleep. Pressures to diet are more impactful, and influences towards extreme exercise are more likely. Teenagers may feel that they have to lose weight or eat a certain way to fit in.


What To Do About Disordered Eating in College Students?

Eating is simple, but what influences us to eat is complex. The environment in college can lead to changed eating habits and disordered eating in college students. An important first step is awareness--what exactly constitutes disordered eating? Take a look at these examples of disordered eating. Students can be educated on the resources available to them, including their college's counselling center. While there is no easy answer, awareness is an important first step.

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