Disordered Eating Habits Among CRP Students

Photo by: Thought Catalog

By Olivia Pennelle

If you notice that you are feeling overwhelmed by your relationship with food, it may be time to take some steps in a helpful direction.

Our college years can feel like we’ve been set free: We don’t have our parents to answer to every day, and we have autonomy to eat what we like, study when we want and go to bed when it suits us. It is the opportunity to learn the art of adulting. But for those in collegiate recovery programs, even though time is a little more structured, we may be at risk of our eating habits getting out of hand and developing an eating disorder.

A new study recently published in the Journal of Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly found high levels of disordered eating among students in collegiate recovery programs. Authors also discovered that disordered eating was more common among full-time female students than male and also differed between full-time and part-time students.

As a known risk factor for developing an eating disorder, disordered eating is not something we should brush off as a poor choice during our college years because these habits can become more serious. Unfortunately, these dysfunctional behaviors have been somewhat normalized within our society. Many of us suffer with them, including:

  • Fearing gaining weight or being overweight
  • Feeling out of control around food and how we eat, frequently eating the whole bag of cookies or compulsively eating fast food
  • Feeling guilty after eating a big meal
  • Using that guilt to punish ourselves by obsessively exercising
  • Getting stuck in a cycle of dieting

That was the case for me. It was during my late teens that I began to develop a problem with food. I ate beyond the point of fullness and then felt guilty. The next day, and for several days after, I often under-ate. This cycle continued for years and was further complicated by the latest restrictive diet that I was on in an attempt to look more like my peers. The problem was that I was bigger than my peers. The tallest in my class and with a bigger body frame — I was never going to be smaller. But all the messaging in magazines I bought sold me on the falsity that I could change my size.

Photo by: Charles Deluvio

I’m not alone. It is quite common that these disordered eating behaviors develop during college, with an estimated 9 percent of college students suffering. That isn’t the only mental illness that teens experience in college: 18 percent of students have substance use disorder, and more than 20 percent suffer with a mental health disorder.

Researchers have already established a link between eating disorders and substance use disorder, with as high as 27 percent of some populations having binge-eating disorder, 14 percent of women having anorexia and 14 percent suffering from bulimia. The tragic reality is that women with disordered eating and substance use disorder are four times more likely to develop an eating disorder.

The current study found that there were still significant levels of disordered eating within collegiate recovery programs (CRP), with nearly 10 percent reporting those behaviors. Those students experienced a negative impact on their studies. Authors of the study reported concern, especially among female and full-time students. In particular, their disordered eating behavior was likely to go largely unnoticed.

Photo by: Matthew Lejune

Recovery scientist and co-author of the study Robert Ashford says: “We still have a lot to learn about students in recovery, especially those with disordered eating behaviors. This initial study provides a starting point to begin having this important dialogue of how we holistically support students through all facets of their recovery, not just their substance use.”

Fortunately, CRPs are well-positioned to provide support for students suffering from disordered eating because they already provide a supportive, peer-involved community for those in recovery from substance use disorder. Activities such as recovery seminars, mutual-aid support groups and positive coping skills development are part of CRPs making them perfect to incorporate other aspects of behavioral health within the scope of their programs. Study authors also recommend greater on-campus support within health promotion and wellness teams to provide better information and resources for students.

If you notice that you are feeling overwhelmed by your relationship with food, it may be time to take some steps in a helpful direction. Ideas include:

  • Keeping a diary of your eating habits and how you feel: Are you eating beyond the feeling of fullness, or are you controlling your portion sizes where you still feel hungry at the end of a meal?
  • Noting your motivations to exercise
  • Observing any negative emotions you may feel about your body image
  • Noticing if you are developing a pattern of dieting and restriction

If you observe anything unusual, it might be worth speaking to your wellness office on campus or your physician to seek some additional support. You don’t need to suffer alone.

Writer and wellness advocate Olivia Pennelle (Liv) passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Her popular site, Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness. You will find Pennelle featured among top recovery writers and bloggers, published on websites such as, The Fix, Intervene, Workit Health, iExhale, Sapling, Addiction Unscripted, Transformation Is Real, Sanford House, Winward Way and Casa Capri.

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