Disturbed eating behaviours and associated psychographic characteristics of college students

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Abstract

Background

Young adulthood is a stressful transition period that may increase the risk for disturbed eating, especially for college students. The present study aimed to explore disturbed eating behaviours and a broad array of associated psychographic characteristics in a large, diverse sample of college students.

Methods

College students (n = 2604; 58% white; 63% female) enrolled at three large, public US universities in 2009 and 2010 were recruited to take an online survey. The survey included reliable and valid disturbed eating behaviour and associated psychographic characteristic measures.

Results

Many participants engaged in disturbed eating practices. For example, one-quarter of women and one-fifth of men engaged in dietary restraint. One in seven reported regularly binge eating. One-third used inappropriate compensatory behaviours (self-induced vomiting, medicine misuse and excessive exercise) as a means for controlling weight and/or shape, with the rate of these behaviours reaching clinically significant levels for 4%, 3% and 5% of participants, respectively. Examination of psychographic characteristics revealed that one-fifth had moderate levels of depression and anxiety severity and almost half engaged in at least one obsessive–compulsive disorder type behaviour. Females felt under more pressure to attain the media physical appearance standard than males.

Conclusions

The findings of the present study suggest that nutrition education interventions for college students may be needed to address disturbed eating behaviours and to provide guidance on how to seek professional help. The findings also suggest that it may be prudent for healthcare professionals to routinely screen college students for disturbed eating behaviours and offer interventions early when treatment is likely to be most effective.

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