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The university food fight: Eating disorders boom on college campuses

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College students are particularly vulnerable to developing body image issues and eating disorders.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports 25 percent of all college students struggle from an eating disorder, and a 2013 study by the National Eating Disorders Association shows eating disorders have increased on college campuses. In 1995, 23 percent of women and 8 percent of men were impacted, and in 2008 those figures had increased to 32 percent of women and 10 percent of men.

How did this issue become so rampant? Haley DelPlato, a senior at Colgate University who is recovering from anorexia, has a suspicion.

“I think it's getting worse because disordered eating habits have become so normalized,” DelPlato told FoxNews.com. “Just the idea of people not eating dinner so they can go out drinking, or only having an apple for lunch so they can go out to dinner, perpetuates the idea that these things are okay and prevents people from addressing these issues.”

In addition to controlling one's caloric intake, a new phenomenon known as the “nap diet” is also pervading college campuses.

“The nap diet is when if you feel hungry but want to lose weight, you just sleep it off instead of eating,” explained Alyssa Devine, a junior at Colgate University. “Wanting to be skinny has become the normal bathroom dialogue.”

While one's genetics might predispose an individual to such behaviors, there is strong evidence to suggest that societal pressures – especially those created by the media – contribute to the prevalence of eating disorders as well.

“The messages in society are pervasive about what is considered attractive and appealing. People are bombarded by the importance of physical appearance,” Dr. Mark Thompson, director of counseling services at Colgate University, told FoxNews.com.

Eating disorders have been thought of as a women's issue, but statistics are now showing a growing number of college men exhibiting unhealthy eating behaviors. Men tend to exhibit these behaviors differently than women, generally resorting to over exercising or supplement abuse to achieve a certain muscular build.

“I know a lot of guys who are focused on gaining weight and taking protein powder,” Andrew Hacker, a sophomore and student athlete at Colgate, told FoxNews.com. “But they don't talk about it as much as I hear girls saying they want to lose weight.”

According to clinical psychologist and eating disorder expert Sari Fine Shepphird, the increase might be due to the number of magazines now focused on helping men look more athletic.  A recent article by Psychology Today also found that upper-class men and women tend to be more prone to developing disordered eating.

“Studies have shown that women from wealthy backgrounds feel they have to look not just perfect – but effortlessly perfect,” Thompson said. “When we look at our student body, about 40 percent are on financial aid. That means 60 percent are full payers, and if you figure that, roughly half of that percent are women and half are men. That means a lot of women could be in that category.”

But colleges are not the only environments that could be enabling eating disorders. According to a new survey by the National Eating Disorders Association, body image insecurities can develop when children are in elementary school. In fact, 8 percent of all 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and 42 percent of all first through third graders want to be thinner.

The counseling center, administration, and student body at Colgate are working to educate students about eating disorders and healthy eating habits by offering services, like counseling appointments and free access to an on-campus nutritionist.

“We need to emphasize the right qualities in people, like their intelligence or how good a friend they are,” Thompson said. “The attention should not be just on appearances. Eating disorders are often a product of people feeling insecure or out of control, and those are the underlying issues we address.”

DelPlato agreed and is dedicated to helping Colgate students struggling with eating disorders and general body-image issues. She and another recovering student are in the midst of forming a support group for their peers.

“Mental illness is stigmatized; a lot of people see it as a weakness. I want to create a group where we can talk about it,” she said.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, seek out your university's counseling and health services or visit nationaleatingdisorders.org.