Eating Attitudes and Behaviors among Female College Students

By Morris, Katherine D. Veazey; Parra, Gilbert R. et al. | Journal of College Counseling, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Eating Attitudes and Behaviors among Female College Students


Morris, Katherine D. Veazey, Parra, Gilbert R., Stender, Sarah R. S., Journal of College Counseling


The authors assessed the influences of several risk factors--self-esteem, history of unwanted sexual contact (USC), depression, and sorority membership--on eating-related and weight-related attitudes and behaviors. Findings provide support for the roles of self-esteem, depression, and USC on restricting attitudes. According to the authors' model, these independent variables predicted restricting attitudes that then predicted restricting behaviors. Implications for preventive interventions and the study's limitations are discussed.

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Major diagnosable eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, are experienced by at least 2.5% to 5% of adolescents and young adults (Doyle & Bryant-Waugh, 2000; Rosenvinge, Borgen, & Borrensen, 1999), Furthermore, even more individuals in this age group experience a combination of subthreshold symptoms falling under the diagnostic umbrella of eating disorders not otherwise specified (NOS), the specific syndrome of binge eating disorder, or subthreshold eating-related concerns that are problematic but do not meet any of these diagnostic criteria. For example, in one study, researchers found that 20% of female college students surpassed the cutoff score for disordered eating (Nelson, Hughes, Katz, & Searight, 1999). Furthermore, Schwitzer, Rodriguez, Thomas, and Salimi (2001) found that on one campus, 80% of the college-age women who had used the counseling center's multidisciplinary eating disorder intervention program reported moderate eating concerns presenting as mixed symptoms rather than fully diagnosable anorexia or bulimia. The most common symptoms reported by the investigators included regular binge eating, problematic daily exercise, and occasional purging. Associated features included overconcern with body image and self-esteem, as well as intermittent depression.

Weight-Related and Eating-Related Attitudes and Behaviors

According to well-established cognitive psychology perspectives, cognitive processes including plans, goals, expectancies, and attitudes give rise to behavioral responses or actions (Reeve, 1992). Correspondingly, in the cognitive theory of eating disorders, researchers believe that the fundamental mechanism driving eating-related disorders is one's attempt to overcome problems with self-esteem by evaluating oneself disproportionately by means of weight and shape and subsequently restricting intake (Pike, Loeb, & Vitousek, 2000). In fact, according to the cognitive and social influence literatures, because social and media messages regarding the importance of weight and shape are commonplace in Western cultures, attitudes regarding the importance of restricting are quite prevalent and therefore easily internalized by individuals. Even among children, 81% of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991), whereas only 46% of 9- to 11-year-olds are "sometimes" or "very often" on diets (Gustafson-Larson & Terry, 1992). In turn, according to the theories, these cognitive attitudes may lead to problematic eating and weight-management behaviors.

Thus, the purpose of the current study was to assess risk factors associated with eating- and weight-related attitudes, as well as eating- and weight-related behaviors among female college students. We believed it was important to gain a better understanding of potential risk factors influencing both attitudes and behaviors separately because research has demonstrated that problematic attitudes toward eating and weight as well as subthreshold eating and weight-related behaviors are much more prevalent than diagnosable eating disorders (Doyle & Bryant-Waugh, 2000; Schwitzer et al., 2001).

Additionally, research supports the exceptionally high rates of disordered eating attitudes and lower, but still high, rates of disordered eating behaviors in children (Mellin et al., 1991). We chose to separate eating-related attitudes and behaviors in the dependent variable to more closely approximate the picture painted by previous research. …

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