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Posted on Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 5:58 a.m.

University of Michigan to study eating and body issues that are 'huge problem' on college campuses

By Kellie Woodhouse


AP image

One trim, attractive student looked to another and cautioned: "You can't eat that today."

"Oh, didn't you already have [enough food]?" she continued.

This was a conversation University of Michigan senior Lauren Beriont, an environmental science major, recalls witnessing when she lunched with a group fellow U-M students earlier in her college pilgrimage.

Negative self image and the prevalence of eating disorders is a "huge problem at the university," Beriont says.

"It's really sad."

Negative body image and eating disorders aren't just prevalent among students at U-M — they plague college students nationwide.

A U-M professor and graduate student are teaming up to survey between 2,500 and 3,000 students —including males, females, grad students and undergrads, international students and students from every college and ethnicity— about attitudes concerning their body, image and eating habits.

The duo wants to understand the scale and scope of image issues and eating disorders among college students so they can "inform policy and programming on our campus and at colleges and universities across the country," according to Sarah Ketchen Lipson, a doctoral student at the U-M Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education and co-investigator of the study.


Sarah Ketchen Lipson

U-M photo

"There’s a lot of eating problems on campus that aren’t addressed," said Beriont. "It's almost become that if you don’t have an eating problem, then you have a problem."

Cautiously, Beriont adds to her summation: "If that makes sense."

On the surface, the statement makes perfect sense.

It's common knowledge that college-aged individuals, especially females, often struggle with their body image, whether it be due to peer influence, media pressures or a number of other factors. Yet the idea that eating disorders can be widely accepted, and times even encouraged, doesn't sit right with most.

"Eating disorders are a serious problem everywhere... and particularly with college students," said Dr. Suzanne Dooley-Hash, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the U-M Health System and co-investigator of the study. "Around college time, you're moving away from home, things change a lot, there's a lot of stress and it tends to be a hard thing."

Teenagers and young adults between 14 and 20 have the highest prevalence of eating disorders, and the statistics among college-aged individuals are staggering.

Two-thirds of college women have undiagnosed mild or emerging eating problems, 60 percent diet or binge and nearly 70 percent use diet pills, purging, or fasting —or combination of all three— to control their weight, according to research. Some researchers have found that up to 19 percent struggle with self-induced vomiting.

Men are not excluded from that data. A recent study found that 9 percent of college men suffer from eating-related issues and three precent report bulimia.

U-M will distribute its first self-image survey next Tuesday to 10,000 students. Investigators expect between 25 and 30 percent of individuals to answer, allowing for a sample of up to 3,000 students. The Ann Arbor-based Center for Eating Disorders has contributed funds for the study.


Suzanne Dooley-Hash

By mid-December, Dooley-Hash and Lipson expect to have captured a better sense of self image and eating disorders among students. From there, the duo will look at how they can apply their results to real life.

"This is an incredibly diverse campus and right now the institution doesn't really [meet the needs of every student]," Lipson said. "The needs of students are obviously different. The needs of a male graduate student versus the needs of a first-year female student are going to be very different."

U-M has a student group called the Body-Peace Corps and offers a program for those with eating disorders, but many students on campus don't know about them.

"I don’t really know of any student groups," said Ashley Jordan, a sophomore.

For Jordan, having a positive view of herself has been essential to succeeding in college, she said.

"Self image is a part of college life, it’s a part of your daily life," she offered. "If you’re not confident in yourself, then you won’t be confident in your classes or anything else that you try to do at this university."

In fact, while negative body image might not be diagnosable, it can affect nearly every aspect of students' lives, from their relationships to their grades, according to Dooley-Hash and Lipson.

In recent weeks, pop icon Lady Gaga has been the brunt of much media criticism because of perceived weight gain. Yet the globally famous pop star has been unapologetic about her appearance, instead using the attention to put the spotlight on eating disorders and negative body image and turn the tide on which body types are considered 'normal' and which aren't.

Advocates at U-M would like to do the same. They'd like get to the root of the problem and redefine what's considered 'normal.'

But first they must answer a number of questions: What affects students' body images? What is at the campus environment really like? What foods are available to help students make healthy choices? What programs exist? What needs to exist? How does the university get students talking about body image?

"The overarching goal would be to bridge this gap between research and practice," said Lipson. "To be able to use [data] to tailor programs and tailor outreach."

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Mon, Oct 1, 2012 : 5:23 p.m.

What we eat : I like the response to my previous post. We may think that what we "eat" is food. As the saying goes, there are many slips between the sip and the lips. What we eat becomes food only if the cells of our stomach and intestinal tract recognize the substance as food. It is important to know that we have no ability to rule or govern the functions of our cells. If the cells reject a substance, you will have no choice other than that of avoiding that substance. People with food intolerance and allergy understand what I am saying. A person with extreme intolerance can easily initiate an emergency response called anaphylactic reaction that may even kill the individual who may have consumed a substance that he/she thinks is Food.


Mon, Oct 1, 2012 : 3:33 p.m.

To those suggesting quality of food or playing with barbies is to blame for true eating disorders, I think you are missing the point. The behavioral aspects of eating disorders( whether it be starving, purging, or overeating ) are the symptoms, a reflection of the sufferers inner world gone awry. People tend to get hung up on the food aspect or societal influence on eating disorders but these are just the by-products or what helps to maintain these behaviors. We are all subjected to the same amount of pressure to be thin, yet not all of us fall victim to these kinds if behaviors.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Mon, Oct 1, 2012 : 2:35 p.m.

Okay, girls, put away your Barbie dolls. Okay, boys, no more Schwarzenegger. There are six (?) billion people, and every one has a different body. Learn to love reality.


Mon, Oct 1, 2012 : 10:39 a.m.

I suppose this is interesting, but it appears more likely that two newly-minted PhD's need salaries, and this is how we're going to pay them.


Mon, Oct 1, 2012 : 10:57 a.m.

Yes, like a lot of studies in the social sciences, this one is probably going to tell us things we already know, mostly, and offer solutions that common sense would dictate, for the most part. It will crunch some numbers, and it will dress up its insights in the often-impenetrable language of sociology, but mostly it will tell us that young people are too susceptible to the negative effects of pop-culture-driven stereotypes, that their models are often unrealistically thin, and that many university students eat too much (or eat foods that have too many calories or eat without being active enough to burn the extra calories). It'll probably suggest that we need ways of countering the stereotypes and replacing the models, and so on. As you say, that's all interesting (well, moderately interesting), but it's a little disheartening to think that it will all cost vast quantities of money that will probably come at least in part from our pockets. Funding research with public money is essential, but it would be nice to get more bang for our bucks.


Mon, Oct 1, 2012 : 2:09 a.m.

The only exercise a lot of college kids get is with their texting fingers! I saw no mention of any problem with excessive drinking!


Mon, Oct 1, 2012 : 1:09 p.m.

I was a student athlete at Michigan and got plenty of exercise, and I had an eating disorder. It has almost nothing to do with exercise or quality of dorm food--it's totally a mental thing.


Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 11:47 p.m.

Regarding all the talk about dining hall food: Eating disorders are rarely, if ever, about the actual food. What is being served in the dining halls is irrelevant to this issue and ignores the greater psychosocial components of the disorders. Labeling foods as "good" or "bad" is also detrimental to preventing and healing all of the disorders on campus (including binge eating disorder!). Let's not oversimplify it!


Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 8:19 p.m.

Kids today are just fatter than they used to be due to inactivity.


Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 5:50 p.m.

How to define "FOOD"? The problems associated with eating could be related to our attitude about food. I define food as a spiritual medium that fosters unity between body, mind, and soul. This unity is established as peace, harmony, and tranquility in the living experience and the person derives a sense of mental contentment, and psychological satisfaction. Apart from a physical analysis of dietary items, we need to incorporate the concept of 'Whole Food', the nutritional substance that supports our physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being.

Angry Moderate

Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 6:09 p.m.

Silly me, all this time I thought that food means "things you eat."


Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 4:08 p.m.

I don't think it has anything to do with what's served in the dining halls; the girls just don't want to eat anything. I'm going through this with my daughter right now. She's doing great in all her classes, is on the deans list, has a million friends, she looks really good, all her professors recommended her for the study abroad that she wants but yet, at times she just can't see any of that and thinks she looks terrible and then has no self confidence at all. Thankfully, she talks with me about it and I got her to see a counselor. I do remember being that age; it only takes one boy to say you're ugly or fat or whatever.


Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 4:04 p.m.

Bad dining hall food could make it harder to manage weight, but the problem is with the underlying body-image issue. Gaining a few pounds (whether due to poor eating habits or just growing into an adult body) shouldn't send someone into an emotional tailspin.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 2:26 p.m.

In the iolden days, when I was at the U., dorm food was not all that interesting and maybe not dietetically excellent (how many ways can you serve ground meat?), but the dining hall was a cafeteria in which you got the meal of the day, and drinks available were white and chocolate milk, coffee, and water. Take it or leave it. No soda pop, no french fries, no, well...visit a modern dining hall and check it out. The same was true in pre-U. school dining. You ate the meal they served, or brought your own. I'm not saying that mac cheese and ghoulash (as we called it) and empanadas dry as dust is all that great, but at least it was limited. Of course, it also served to send us out to Crazy's or out for pizza, but you get the drift. We didn't have the fast food heaven that seems to exist now. So how about if we start as Technojunkie suggests: look at what is being served to students in the dorm dining halls, and try to make it more sensible. At least try to reduce the temptations, and at the same time, you might find a way to lower the cost of room and board due to this new old policy.


Sun, Sep 30, 2012 : 1:22 p.m.

Try serving real food instead of industrial crap in campus dining halls? Grass fed meats, healthy fats, organic veggies, minimal grains and refined sugars. The extra cost would be a roundoff error on UofM's tuition expense.