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  • Daniella Pacheco

How college independence is causing increases in eating disorders

Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, located in Coconut Creek, Florida (Photo Courtesy: Lindsey Brodowski)

As college freshmen settle into their new lives away from home, they may not be aware that their relationship with food could undergo significant changes due to the new environment and newfound freedom. The Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders, located in Coconut Creek, Florida, suggests a potential correlation between increased freedom in college and the prevalence of eating disorders.

Eating disorders are complex conditions influenced by various factors contributing to their development and the maintenance of their symptoms. Research indicates that eating disorders often result from a hyper-complex interaction between genetics and environments, particularly during times of transition or distress.

This could include anything from puberty, menopause, significant life events such as losing a loved one, ending a relationship or even relocation. Moving to college, especially in a new city or state, can add to the stressors leading to eating disorders.

Dr. Melanie Smith, a clinician at the Renfrew Center, observes a connection between life in college and the development of eating disorders. The transitions and adaptation to a new environment can oftentimes trigger these disorders, putting students at risk. Dr. Smith continued to express that factors and stigmas such as the dreaded “freshman 15," and higher levels of stress and anxiety can be counted as potential risks to behaviors associated with these disorders.

“College creates the perfect storm of biological, social and cultural factors that can contribute to the development of an eating disorder,” said Dr. Smith.

For college students, the desire to fit in with their peers, food insecurity and the fear of weight gain all play significant roles in the onset of eating disorders. Athletes are similarly affected by an increase in performance or achieving the aesthetic norms of their sport. International students may also feel compelled to adapt to different body expectations and integrate into the dominant culture.

First-year college students, being away from their families and close ones for the first time, lack monitoring of their behavior or recognition of warning signs of eating disorders.

“A lot of college students, like the rest of us, have also lived in a culture that is steeped in diet culture so the messages around food, activity and health are contradictory,” said Dr. Smith. “This can make it challenging to navigate the dining hall, establish a helpful sleep and eating routine and identify overall balance related to food.”

Although it is easy to label these disorders as harmful, many people may not realize that they are often used during moments of distress when the patient feels it is their best option. When someone is struggling with something that feels unmanageable or overwhelming, they may turn to the behaviors associated with eating disorders to gain some sense of control.

“At The Renfrew Center, we see eating disorders as a means to manage distressing emotions, such as stress, anxiety, depression and even micro-aggressions and bullying," Dr. Smith added.

However, individuals with eating disorders can make a full recovery once their condition is identified. These individuals should be approached and treated with empathy and compassion. Dr. Smith highlighted the importance of delving into mental health concerns and supporting those who are struggling in silence.

The Renfrew Center specializes in the treatment of eating disorders by creating a safe and trauma-informed environment where patients can come together and find community in their shared experiences and struggles. The center offers multiple forms of treatment such as residential, day treatment, intensive outpatient programming and outpatient services.

“We strive to create communities within communities for lasting support and enduring recovery,” said Dr. Smith.

Beyond seeking treatment, those dealing with eating disorders must establish a network of support. This is especially critical for college students who may be living far away from close family and friends, as eating disorders are characterized by disconnection and can cause a variety of disruptions in one’s life.

“While reaching out for help is difficult, it is one of the most important factors in working toward and maintaining recovery long-term,” mentioned Dr. Smith.

A support network doesn't have to consist solely of a treatment team; it can include friends, significant others, professors, mentors, or roommates. It's up to the individual struggling to decide who they trust to support them on their journey.


If you or someone you may know could be struggling with an eating disorder, seek out help to facilitate relief and recovery. College students are encouraged to go to their health and counseling centers to see what resources are accessible.

You can also contact 1-800-RENFREW to schedule a free assessment with a clinician.

By Daniella Pacheco

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