The Problem with Dieting: Eating Disorders Affecting American College Students

Young adult in athletic wear holding a bowl of oatmeal

Alex Andersen

Bachelor’s Student at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

Dieting is very common in American culture, with almost half  of all Americans having tried to lose weight in the past 12 months1 (the rate is higher among women). Among college students, 44% of women and 27% of men diet to lose weight.2

Diet products can be found everywhere, turning dieting into a cultural norm. Diet culture focuses on body image, claiming one will be happier if they are thinner, setting often impossible or unattainable goals. Products promoting dieting are advertised to consumers as a quick fix to problems, promoting unhealthy behaviors that are very likely to fail. Because diets often involve restricting what we eat, most people gain back the weight they lose after going off the diet.

Changing eating and exercise behaviors can lead to disordered eating. The National Eating Disorders Association found that 35% of dieting becomes obsessive, and 20 to 25% of those diets turn into eating disorders.4 Considering how often messages about dieting and thinness are shown on social media, it would make sense that younger people who use social media more are at greater risk of developing an eating disorder.5

For college students in particular, many factors increase the risk of developing an eating disorder, as it’s a highly stressful time and a major life transition. Other factors that affect college students’ eating patterns include:

  • More independence
  • Access to affordable healthy foods
  • Knowledge of nutrition
  • Fewer organized sporting activities, leading to less exercise
  • Different food environment
  • School and social stress
  • Alcohol intake
  • Social factors (ex. what a person’s friends are eating)
  • Busy schedules
  • Lack of parental control/influence over diet

Because college is also an important time for development, eating disorders can have major consequences. Between 10 and 20% of women and 4 and 10% of men in college have eating disorders.4 Such disorders can affect both physical and mental health, with outcomes ranging from not meeting nutritional recommendations and loss of menstrual cycle to anxiety and even death.

College athletes are particularly vulnerable to developing an eating disorder.7 In addition to the factors listed above, athletes may be pressured toward a lean body type. This can lead to Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S), which looks at effects on things like cardiovascular health, metabolism, bone health. On top of RED-S, female athletes can also be affected by the Female Athlete Triad, which includes disordered eating, osteoporosis, and amenorrhea (loss of menstruation).

While there are many factors that can lead to eating disorders in college students, there are ways to help those affected and raise awareness. For RED-S and the Female Athlete Triad, educating coaches and family members on the warning signs and symptoms can help with treatment and prevention. College campuses can also dedicate and promote mental health resources to increase awareness for students. On a larger scale, we should focus on replacing messages about dieting and being thin with ones about body positivity and making healthy and sustainable lifestyle choices.

If you believe you are in need of help, you can visit the National Eating Disorders Association or University Health Service at the University of Michigan for resources.


  1. Martin, Crescent B, et al. Attempts to Lose Weight Among Adults in the United States,
    2013–2016. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018.
  2. Karges, Crystal, and Jacquelyn Ekern. “Starting College and the Risk of Eating
    Disorders.” Eating Disorder Hope, 2013.
  3. Sifferlin, Alexandra. The Weight Loss Trap: Why Your Diet Isn't Working. TIME, 25 May 2017.
  4. Eating Disorders on the College Campus.” National Eating Disorders Association, Feb. 2013.
  5. Media & Eating Disorders. NEDA, 22 February 2018.
  6. Deliens, Tom, et al. “Determinants of Eating Behaviour in University Students: a Qualitative Study Using Focus Group Discussions.” BMC Public Health, vol. 14, no. 1, 18 Jan. 2014, doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-53. 
  7. Eating Disorders and Young Athletes. Stanford Children’s Health (n.d.).

About the Author

Headshot of article author, Alex AndersenAlex Andersen is currently a student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. She is passionate about health, fitness, and nutrition as well as psychology and photography.