Anorexia in Academia

Originally published in the Scotsman.

My first year of undergrad, my roommate gave up sweets for Lent. Afterwards, she decided she could live without sweets. It seemed like a prudent dietary choice, except that for her, sweets included things like raisins and flavoured yogurt. When she moved to an off-campus apartment our second year, she stopped eating meat because it was too expensive. Then she started avoiding fat and salt. Then it was carbs. Soon, all she ate were vegetables, and not many of those.

Since we weren’t living together at the time, I did not realize what was happening, and I was too polite to ask. As she got thinner and thinner, as her hair began to fall out, I thought she had cancer. It was only after her second hospitalisation that I found out she was suffering from anorexia. Eventually, she moved back into halls where meals were catered, but it was a harrowing experience for everyone who knew her. I’ve never actually spoken with her about it, but I imagine it must have been a harrowing experience for her, too.

This all came to mind recently when I heard about a friend’s colleague. An international student with limited funds, he’s convinced that he can only spend £10 per week on food. His entire diet consists of muesli, semi-skimmed milk, and low-fat cottage cheese. Unsurprisingly, he suffers from anemia and has recently been diagnosed with kidney problems. Like my friend in undergrad, he won’t admit that he has an eating disorder. Like many other stories I’ve heard, micromanagement of food has become a way to feel a sense of control in a confusing and stressful academic life.

My first instinct tells me that eating disorders must be more prevalent among university students than in the population at large, but I’ve been hard-pressed to find any studies on this. There are studies showing an increased rate of other mental health problems among students – anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide – but a curious lack of studies measuring rates of anorexia and bulimia on university campuses in comparison with the wider population. Predictably, there is ample research on anorexia among dance students, models, and young women who are concerned about their looks, echoing the stereotype that a desire to be thin can trigger an eating disorder.

But what about the people you wouldn’t expect? What about bookish medical students like my old roommate, who couldn’t care less about fashion? What about the quiet foreign students who keep to themselves, avoiding help? What about the high-achievers who seem to have everything sorted, but secretly feel the compulsion to keep a tight rein on their diets?

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London, the academic and social pressures of university life can exacerbate existing mental health problems, or spark new ones. Many studies link eating disorders with perfectionism, a common and well-rewarded trait at universities. But I could not find any explicit comparisons between students and the rest of society.

I thought I might be looking in the wrong places, so I phoned the media office of Beat, formerly the Eating Disorders Association. According to the woman I spoke with, statistics on eating disorders are hard to come by, and she did not know of any statistics on the prevalence of anorexia among university students.

To me, the lack of statistics and studies says a lot about our attitude towards eating disorders. We expect to see self-starvation among people concerned with their weight, but forget that it can affect anyone. In the high-pressure setting of academia, I wonder how many women and men are suffering in silence.


Beat, the Eating Disorders Association (UK). Some Statistics.

Bellisle F., M.O. Monneuse, A. Steptoe and J. Wardle. 1995: ‘Weight concerns and eating patterns: a survey of university students in Europe.’ International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders, 19(10): 723-30.

Bulik, Cynthia M., Federica Tozzi, Charles Anderson, Suzanne E. Mazzeo, Steve Aggen, and Patrick F. Sullivan. 2003: ‘The Relation Between Eating Disorders and Components of Perfectionism.’ American Journal of Psychiatry, 160:366-368.

Davis, Caroline. 1997: ‘Normal and neurotic perfectionism in eating disorders: An interactive model.’ International Journal of Eating Disorders, Vol. 22, Iss. 4, pp. 421-26.

Garner D.M. and P.E. Garfinkel. 1980: ‘Socio-cultural factors in the development of anorexia nervosa.’ Psychological Medicine, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 647-56.

Hamilton, Teresa K. and Robert D. Schweitzer. 2000: ‘The cost of being perfect: perfectionism and suicide ideation in university students.’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 34 Iss. 5.

Royal College of Psychiatrists, London. Council Report CR112, January 2003. The mental health of students in higher education.

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