Universities: Potential Eating Disorder Breeding Grounds

by Natalie Colantuono

Through my last four years at the University of Pittsburgh as a dietetics major, I have gained an extensive amount of knowledge on the biochemical metabolism of food, the medical nutrition therapy for various conditions, and the role of a dietitian in the community. These were all topics I expected to be covered throughout my education. However, one of the most startling lessons I have come across is not one that I learned in the classroom, but rather one among my own college peers. The lesson? College culture seems to breed disordered eating, and it’s around every corner I turn.

It is no secret college is a vulnerable time for young adults. Because of this vulnerability, and with the natural desire to assimilate into a new environment, image and social pressure play a large role in students’ behaviors. I have found, among my peers, body shape and size are the most central attributes that play into one’s social rank and image. With social media being so prevalent in college culture in this day in age, the body-focused pressures only increase.  Not to mention, there is a vast amount of fear-mongering around the dreaded Freshman 15, making college students even more hyper-aware of their bodies and the changes that may occur as they begin to live on their own. This has caused many individuals to resort to food as a means to control their bodies. It has been found that, at one university studied, “the percentage of students eating according to a special weight loss diet increased from 4.2% in 1995 to 22% in 2008.”1

As an aspiring future dietitian that hopes to practice from a Health at Every Size informed approach, I can’t help but to be hyper-sensitive of the culture I am immersed in. Restricting food before going out for drinks and replacing meals with large coffees are among the everyday habits of college students that have fallen into this diet mentality. Oh, and eating meals? Good nutrition and a healthy relationship with food? Merely an afterthought, and one that many claim to not have time to consider.

While I see these behaviors as not only dangerous to physical health, but also particularly harmful to mental well-being and body image, the college culture I have experienced does not see food restriction as a problem. Instead, the thought process seems to be “Coffee gives me momentary energy to study, and it does not contain many calories. I can still be a good student, and also look thin and appealing tonight at a party. I have saved up my calories today by drinking coffee as a meal, so now I can binge on alcohol and make up for that caloric deficit.” And, repeat the cycle.

It’s no secret that coffee is a staple in the common university student diet. However, it’s relationship with calorie restriction and body image seem to be disregarded. What many college students see as a perfect equilibrium between school work and maintaining an attractive physique, I see as disordered eating habits – and intentional or not, they can be just as detrimental. Unfortunately, these thoughts and behaviors are not unique to the University of Pittsburgh, but seem to be intertwined in almost every university setting to varying degrees.

What I have found in my last three and a half years at a university was something frightening, but sadly, not a surprising phenomenon of disordered eating habits in young adults. For me, it reaffirms the importance of my future work as a registered dietitian and displays a great amount of healing that our society needs, in terms of relationship with food and body. My motto for now? Inspire and share my perspective on the beauty of nourishing our bodies. I believe in planting seeds, and continuing to plant is what I will do.



1White S, Reynolds-Malear JB, Cordero E. Disordered Eating and the Use of Unhealthy Weight Control Methods in College Students: 1995, 2002, and 2008. Eating Disorders. 2011;19(4):323-334. doi:10.1080/10640266.2011.584805.



Natalie Colantuono_headshotNatalie Colantuono is a current Nutrition and Dietetics student at the University of Pittsburgh. Her areas of interest in dietetics include eating disorder recovery, Health at Every Size, intuitive eating, and overall promoting a healthy relationship with food and your body. In her free time, she enjoys reading poetry, exploring the local Pittsburgh food & coffee scene, and advocating for eating disorder awareness on her Instagram platform, @_cilantropist.

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