College is often a time of excitement that is also tinged with anxiety. On one hand, a young person in college is usually understood to have reached the milestone of becoming an adult in the eyes of society. For the first time in many young people’s lives, they are able to make their own daily decisions away from the influence and oversight of their parents and other adults who are directly responsible for them. It is this very sense of independence and freedom, however, that also can make college a source of anxiety, depression and other challenging emotions. Without the guidance and daily oversight of an objective and loving person, many college students flounder in one way or another.

What is Binge Eating Disorder? 

According to the American Psychological Association,, there are three primary categories of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Though they are all related, the first two types — anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa — often receive the bulk of the attention from the media.

A person with anorexia nervosa look at themselves and see someone who is overweight even when they are extremely thin. In order to address this distorted body image, a person with anorexia nervosa often restricts the amount they eat while exercising compulsively.

Those people with bulimia nervosa binge eat — often in secret due to their feelings of shame and guilt. In order to relieve themselves of these feelings, a person with bulimia nervosa will purge their bodies of the binged food by using enemas, laxatives, diuretics, exercising or vomiting.

An individual who has a binge eating disorder also experiences frequent bouts of eating that they feel powerless to control — much like those with bulimia nervosa. Unlike those with bulimia nervosa, though, a person with a binge eating disorder doesn’t purge themselves of the calories they’ve consumed.

There is a fourth category of eating disorders that is known as “eating disorders not otherwise specified.” An individual might meet the criteria for this category, for example, if there are eating-related issues present, but they don’t meet the criteria for one of the three disorders outlined above.

Binge Eating Disorder and the College Student

Not surprisingly, college students as a group can experience an increase in their rates of binge eating disorder. While there is no hard and fast list of reasons why health professionals see an uptick in the numbers of college students that need binge eating disorder treatment, the following are common ones:

  1. Loss of Support

While many young people struggle against the rules and restrictions that parents place on them — especially as they grow into teenagers and strive for more independence — these parental expectations were also a framework of support as well. Going off to college might mean that a young adult is still reliant on hers or his parents’ financial support, but the support necessary to get through the day is no longer in place.

  1. Decreased Structure

From the time a child is small, there is typically a certain level of structure within any household. It’s within this structured framework that parents and children were able to get out of the house every day so they can make it to work and school on time. Meals were on a structured timeline to allow room for after-school activities, homework and showers before bed.

A college student often is experiencing her or his first time at setting up their own structure. What makes doing so even more of a challenge is that the institution of a college campus is typically far different than that of a family. Without that structure in place — and at a loss of how to effectively implement one — a college student might find themselves floundering to get to class on time or to find enough time to study. There might also be issues with getting to the cafeteria on time for meals that can lead to binge eating on whatever can be found.

  1. Loneliness

Many college students are excited about attending college because it gives them the opportunity to socialize with an expanded pool of possible friends. This same giant list of potential friends, however, can be overwhelming to get to know. Even a young adult who was previously at home and outgoing in their high school could find themselves challenged to make relevant friends in the oversized world of a college campus.

  1. Uncertainty about the Future

For many young adults, heading to college is not without its uncertainties about the future. For one thing, the real world of adulthood is that much closer than it was just a year or two ago. Many college students are expected to be ready to join the job market with everything they need in place in about four years or even less.

Another aspect of uncertainty that can hit college students is the fact that they might not know what they really want to do in their lives. The prospect of having to make a decision regarding their schooling that can affect their lives — for better or for worse — when they are just gaining a semblance of independence can be daunting.

A third source of uncertainty can exist in those students who are the first in their families to go to college. Not knowing if they belong there — or feeling like they don’t — and a fear of letting others down can feed a sense of uncertainty that can dog a college student during their entire school career.

  1. Rigorous Course Requirements

Regardless of the quality of education that a student received in high school, it’s very likely that the courses they face in college will be more demanding than what they are used to. While some college students find themselves thriving on the challenges this brings to their lives, many more struggle under the weight of such demands. When coupled with the more independent nature of college and the daunting environment that might be present among professors and students, young adults could find it difficult to reach out for the help they need in the classes where they are struggling.

  1. Internal or External Pressures

A family who has a great deal wrapped up in their child’s college career often puts a lot of external pressure on the college student. In many cases, this pressure is not intentional while other families have parents who are living their own dreams through the actions of their children.

A college student who is the first in her or his family to attend college often feels a great deal of pressure to succeed. Scholarship winners and those students whose families sacrificed a great deal for them to attend college also might face a great deal of pressure — either from themselves or their loved ones.

  1. Sports Expectations

Whether a college student is attending an institution on a sports scholarship or they simply want to join a team, the expectations that often exist within the sector of college life can make it for them to have a binge eating disorder. Strict diets and sports that put a premium on thinness or maintaining a certain weight could cause a student to become stressed so they eat uncontrollably after denying their body of the calories and nutrients it needs for so long.

  1. Prior Binge Eating Disorder

A college student who is in recovery from a binge eating disorder — or one who had a binge eating disorder in the past — could find it difficult to follow the necessary protocols to continue in their recovery. While not inevitable, of course, the potential for a college student with a previous binge eating disorder to relapse can be high.

  1. Tough Exam Schedules

College students have a reputation for staying up all night long and studying before binge eating and crashing for a few hours before doing it all again. This cycle can come about because of the stringent requirements that a college curriculum places on its students. Another potential cause for such behavior is the inability of the student to effectively balance their social life along with their classes and the necessary study time they need to put in outside of the classroom. This can lead to college students skipping meals and then binge eating to make up for it later on.

  1. It’s Expected

Out-of-control behavior is often seen as accepted — or even expected — within college students. Whether this comes in the form of binge drinking or binge eating, there is a certain expectation that college students will take advantage of this time period in their lives and do things to the excess. This mindset can not only make it easier to turn to binge eating as a way to cope with the various aspects of college life, it can also make it more difficult for those around a college student with a binge eating disorder to realize there is a problem.

Binge Eating Disorder Treatment

Like the other two primary eating disorders — anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa — it can be difficult for a college student to realize that he or she has a binge eating disorder in part because bingeing behaviors are so integrated into the college experience. In reality, though, binge eating disorder is common with as many as 40 percent of people who are currently trying to lose weight as actually suffering from binge eating disorder. Also sometimes known as compulsive overeating, binge eating disorder treatment can successfully address the issues that lie behind this disorder.

Though there is a continued stigma in the United States against people who are overweight, times are changing as scientists gain a better understanding of the underlying issues. According to the DSM-5, binge eating disorder is now recognized as a serious medical condition that requires specialized treatment and binge eating disorder counseling. The right binge eating therapy that is presented by recovered staff who follow a truth without judgment tone is the ideal method of binge eating treatment.

Eating Disorder Recovery is Possible — and Important

A college student who has binge eating disorder is at risk for numerous medical conditions including diabetes, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain kinds of cancer. The right binge eating treatment centers place a high priority on maintaining a “people first, therapist second” mentality. Because low self-esteem is often present in those college students who have binge eating disorder, a focus on a healthy self as part of being fully recovered is vital for the health of the college student.

College students who find themselves binge eating at least once a week for three months or longer, who cannot control what they eat or stop eating and who eat a larger portion of food than is considered to be normal during a two-hour period of time meet the DSM-5 criteria for binge eating disorder. As such, they should reach out for help from a binge eating treatment center.

Oliver-Pyatt Centers is grounded in mindfulness and the belief that each person has the capacity for a mindful relationship with food and their body. Present in every aspect of our program, this philosophy encompasses nutrition and eating, as well as movement, with an emphasis on becoming free from negative habits, behaviors and rigidity. We work from a place of empathy and wisdom, using a medically grounded, psychologically gentle approach.

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