Bulimia Nervosa & Anorexia Nervosa: The Sad Truth Behind Eating Disorders

You may have heard of the dreaded “freshman 15” which refers to the average 15 pounds gained by new college students. Whether that is true for everyone or not, many young adults might actually lose weight after coming to college, and in very unhealthy ways. Bulimia nervosa and Anorexia nervosa are common psychological eating disorders that find their way into unfortunate college students. Both these disorders are essentially two sides of the same coin. Bulimia nervosa is a disorder that involves an obsessive need to lose weight, which includes excessive eating followed by depression and self-induced vomiting and purging. On the other hand, Anorexia nervosa is characterized by an unwanted fear of weight gain that leads to abnormally low body weight due to eating less and over exercising. Here we break down some statistics and associations between eating disorders and college students.

According to Dunn et al. (2011), the onset of such disorders generally occurs between the ages of 18 to 20. It rarely occurs after the age of 40 and is mostly associated with some stressful life events like leaving the house to go to college. The stress that comes with that step towards adulthood puts college students at a higher risk of developing eating disorders. Research has indicated that increased risk can also follow depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and substance use. Vice versa, research indicates that people with eating disorders have a higher chance of developing substance abuse compared to people with non-eating disorders.

Additionally, based on a questionnaire survey by Carter et al. (1984), statistics show a frequency of bulimia nervosa of 8% to 10% in college females and 6% to 16% in high school females. Bulimic behaviors mostly just consist of binge eating, fear of weight gain, and frequent vomiting. An Eating Attitude Test was developed to assess the eating behaviors for anorexia nervosa and it concluded that all the subjects that were scored higher in the test for anorexia might have been bulimic as well, indicating an overlap between the symptoms for both disorders.

Let’s take a step back from the college population and look at how eating disorder patterns vary in the general early adulthood population. Johnson, Cohen, and Kasen (2002) looked at whether adolescents with eating-disorders are at an elevated risk of other mental disorders and even physical ones. Their findings indicate that patients being treated for anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa also developed physical disorders by treating their bodies in unhealthy ways. Some of the symptoms that may be associated with this overlap between physical and mental illnesses are cardiovascular symptoms, chronic pain, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, depression, etc. 

“The stress that comes with that step towards adulthood puts college students at a higher risk of developing eating disorders.”

Another thought-provoking association can be that of the effects of social networking sites on body image issues, self-esteem, and possible eating disorder concerns. Oftentimes people might find themselves trying to match the supposed beauty standards set by influencers and celebrities; this can lead to insecurities that develop into unhealthy behavior such as eating disorders. The elevated use of social media like Facebook and Instagram among young adults tends to result in an overall decreased happiness and satisfaction with life. With regards to the same, a survey was designed by Santarossa and Woodruff (2017) which included various scales to measure body image, self-esteem, and eating behaviors. The results from the survey suggested that social media lurking and commenting on others’ profiles were found to be related to body image issues. In addition to that, the total time spent on social media sites is related to lower self-esteem and higher eating disorder concerns/symptoms. Needless to say, social media usage can lead to decreased happiness in life and lower self-esteem with increased depression, loneliness, and concerns for eating disorder symptoms.

It is therefore very crucial to take care of your physical and mental health especially when in college. Take one step at a time, study, work hard but don’t forget to breathe, take a break, have fun, and ask for help! There is a wide range of resources on-campus that are there just to help you, so don’t be afraid to ask them for help. Even if you aren’t a college student, reach out to the people around you. Mental health is of utmost importance to everyone, and there are good ways to maintain it as long as you seek after it.


Carter, Patricia I., and Robert A. Moss. “Screening for anorexia and bulimia nervosa in a college population: Problems and limitations.” Addictive Behaviors 9.4 (1984): 417-419.

Dunn, Erin C., Mary E. Larimer, and Clayton Neighbors. “Alcohol and drug‐related negative consequences in college students with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 32.2 (2002): 171-178.

Johnson, Jeffrey G., et al. “Eating disorders during adolescence and the risk for physical and mental disorders during early adulthood.” Archives of general psychiatry 59.6 (2002): 545-552.

Santarossa, Sara, and Sarah J. Woodruff. “# SocialMedia: Exploring the relationship of social networking sites on body image, self-esteem, and eating disorders.” Social Media+ Society 3.2 (2017): 2056305117704407.

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