College Women and the Culture of Dieting

By Jim F

83 per cent of female college students (aged 18-24) diet… no matter how much they weigh. The research appears in the Nutrition Journal (abstract here).

The chief researcher acknowledges that the figure is up from 70% (in previous research) – but that may be due to how they classify dieting.

Among the dieting behaviors she asked about were consciously eating less than you want, using artificial sweeteners, skipping breakfast, and smoking for weight control.

Some of the statistics come as no surprise.

  • 32% skipped breakfast
  • 9% smoked cigarettes (as an appetite suppressant)
  • 5% used vomiting to control weight
  • 3% use laxatives after eating

Here’s the kicker: “We really didn’t find much difference due to body weight.” In other words, most young women are using a raft of unhealthy behaviors to manage their weight (no matter where they sit on the BMI scale).

These methods aren’t cures – they are crutches. They are the easy substitutes that take the place of a disciplined healthy lifestyle. Integrating healthy diet and appropriate levels of exercise into our modern lifestyle is tough. It is a challenge – and many times we can mess up and fall back on the old ‘survival kits’ or crutches.

How many times you ‘mess up’ isn’t important. What’s important is that you get straight back up again, and keep on pursuing a life of spiritual, physical, and mental wholeness.


  1. Brittany

    Katie. You are not crazy. Loosing weight can be a fun and rewarding experience. It’s a huge challenge & while in school I have to say it can be one of the hardest things to do. I’m not sure if you have or want a job, but while in college I waitressed/bartended where I burned tons of calories while working 9-hr shifts and making pretty decent money for a college student. Also, I tried to work at places where I enjoyed my job so it was a time to have fun & get away from studies! Oh yeah and you need to eat good, count calories etc. because just because you are active, if you don’t eat well it will not matter. Good luck 🙂

  2. Brittany

    amen sister. what you say is the truth. as a struggling dieter for many years, it took me a long time to just simply figure this out!!! It seems so plane but if you follow this, you will not have to go to drastic measures. but college is a very stressful time, and sometimes hard to just do this.. I understand ladies- just work hard to do your best!

  3. Brittany

    Jen- you probably hate to hear this, because I know I did also, but your metabolism has clearly slowed down to adjust to what you were eating, it will pick back up in about 2 months. Also, are you always eating below 1000 calories or just sometimes… I know I will count calories for 4 or 5 days then not count for a couple days, and will just stay @ the same weight or gain because 2 days of bad eating can throw an entire diet off… (believe me they were usually a really bad 2 days!!!) good luck jen.

  4. Linds

    Geez… you need different “friends!” Its kind of interesting, actually, at my school you get weird looks if you DON”T chose a small desert on a semi regular basis… there is kind of a DON’T diet philosophy here, but rather, “BE HEALTHY…” As a result we have a lot of women who run on the slightly chubby side of health, but not many who would be considered much over weight by their BMI, but who are happy and supportive of each other

  5. Linds

    Diet is super difficult to deal with in college – especially if you are on a meal plan where they put so much unhealthy but half way yummy looking food in front of you, and all your friends are eatting it.

    Just remember, everyone wants to be the best they personally can be — but this should include being as healthy as possible, not just light!

    I find that going by an ideal waist measurement or whatever can be more helpful than weight, as weight can change depending on fat/muscle ratio.

    Check out Judith S. Beck’s book “The Beck Diet Solution.” It covers the cognative behaviors of dieting, and how to think like a HEALTHY thin person. It’s an amazing program that has really worked wonders for me.

    Also, regarding exercise, and fitting it in to your life at school – it seems that the best way to do this is be part of a team that exercises together, whether officially as a sport, or unofficially as friends. If you have a sense that you are letting other’s down if you don’t show up, it’s easier to bump up on your priority radar.

    Good luck ladies!

  6. NatureGirl

    Hey Alanna!

    I totally agree with you. I feel a lot of pressure to diet from other young women too. I go to a college that’s about 70% female. As such, most of my friends are women. All of them are either currently on a diet or want to lose weight. I get the funny looks too whenever I eat a decent portion, or if I choose to get dessert. Recently my friends have been calling me “fat” because I put on a little weight. In fact according to my BMI I am considered “underweight” but I think this is due to my small frame. I am short and slim with curvy hips. I also work out a lot more than these “friends” of mine.

    A small waist and a round booty is a perfectly natural look for a woman, but my friends hate it. They liked me better before I developed hips. I guess now so many people are messed up that they think a naturally thin woman is “fat” and a skeletal woman is “pretty.”

  7. samie

    katie said:
    hello im a 15 year old girl and weigh 9 stone 10 and am 5ft 6 ,and i like big cock. i really want to lose a stone and now i am reali starting to condsider starving my self to achieve this, iv got a month to lose a stone because i am going on holiday and want to look good in a bikini! what should i do ?[…]

  8. Alanna

    I’m a college student. Most of the girls I know are on diets. A lot of it is pressure from the other girls I think. If you’re going to eat with your friends and eat a decent sized meal or anything going against the diet fad of the moment, you’re going to get funny looks and probably comments from the other girls. It’s sad, but it’s true.

  9. Jenna

    I’m a Virginia Slim 120 girl for life..I am so addicted!

  10. Different Nic

    Hi Sam–
    I’m a recovering bulimic. I was bulimic/anorexic for 8 years. My advice would be to see a doctor, a therapist, and if possible a nutritionist. People with ED’s often cannot stop on their own- it becomes an addiction. It’s not your fault and there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Also, this website is really great:
    They helped me a lot when I was really struggling. Good luck! You’re worth it.

    Samantha said:
    Hi my names sam, and I’ve been suffereing from bulimia for the past 6 months.I take 50 laxatives a day,alongside some diet pills,but I really want to stop but dont know how.It started when I started dieting until I started reducing my calorie intake,till it reached 100 cal per day.I was really overweight before and don’t want to put it bk on, but b[…]

  11. Samantha

    Hi my names sam, and I’ve been suffereing from bulimia for the past 6 months.I take 50 laxatives a day,alongside some diet pills,but I really want to stop but dont know how.It started when I started dieting until I started reducing my calorie intake,till it reached 100 cal per day.I was really overweight before and don’t want to put it bk on, but because I lost it so quickly it will cum bk on quickly.I’m 5’8 and weigh 10 stone 5 but still feel fat even though ma friends tell me I look really skinny, and think i have anorexia. this problem has been going on 4 mnths now,im tired of it. plzzz any advice will be very useful.thnksxx

  12. katie

    hello im a 15 year old girl and weigh 9 stone 10 and am 5ft 6 , i really want to lose a stone and now i am reali starting to condsider starving my self to achieve this, iv got a month to lose a stone because i am going on holiday and want to look good in a bikini! what should i do ?

  13. Sugi

    How to reduce over weights?? My height is 5.5 and weight is 81.4kg..

    What are the steps need to follow to reduce weights?

  14. Sugi

    emma said:
    can anyone tell me some cultural reasons to start a diet..[…]

  15. Karen

    What a con job! Don’t you think management KNEW a bit before 10 minutes before they closed the door, yet they continued to allow the staff to collect money for the program.
    I say, “Get a group together and get your money back in court.”
    The diet industry manipulates and brainwashes those that work for it and those that think it works…it does, temporarily.
    Don’t be sad, be angry. IT’s much healthier and you won’t eat over it.
    What a rip off! It should be shut down permanently here in the States too. It’s the worst of the worst next to Weight Watchers who won’t even release their statistics of relapse and failure.

  16. bang me :)

    can anyone tell me some cultural reasons to start a diet..

    since we’re on the subject 😀

  17. emma

    can anyone tell me some cultural reasons to start a diet..

    since we’re on the subject 😀

  18. kate

    I’m a 19 year old in university and I have been battle with different forms of anorexia, and recovery. I am 5’2 and used to weighh 127 pounds. My new years resolution was to drop 10. I began working out at the local gym and when i consistantly wasn’t losing any weight fast enough I decided to go on a diet…to make a long story short I eventually figured out weight loss has nothing to do with what your eating so much as how much. I began to count calories, became obsessed and my activity anorexia relasped later into full blown anorexia nervosa. The first time I went to a professional nutritionist I hovered at 105 and was pronounced underweight. I was instructed to put on weight. Now I am back in recovery at 102 pounds. I would give anything to take back my power. You lose it all to “Ed” (eating disorder…comes from a really good book…the truth about ed…read it.) If you want to lose weight in a healthy way consider first why you want to lose it. because I have lost a lot more than weight. I’ve lost events I’ve missed out on because i couldn’t, i was too tired, to emotional, or couldn’t figure out how to avoid food. I have wondered if I’d survive this. And only those tha thave gone through this themselves can even begin to understand the pain that goes with being told you have to put on weight in order for your brain to function properly. Please be careful because there is not a single person that deserves this kind of suffering. It’s an addiction greater than any other to break; we have to eat. I can look in the mirror and still see 127 pounds. Even those I’ve lost 25 of them, it’s the scariest thing in the world when you can’t believe size tags, and that is all part of it. love what you have, be concerned with your health,& love your sanity.

  19. Jan

    Linds is right. Also, anorexia is a psychological disorder, not a number of how much you weigh.

  20. Linds

    How much weight?
    How much does your heart weigh? Your hair, teeth? The ability to walk across the room without passing out? Freedom?
    ‘Cause that’s exactly what you lose.

  21. kallie

    how much weight exactly do you lose a week when anorexic? im not anorexic, but i want to learn more about anorexia.

  22. Jan

    Katie, it is ok to want to lose weight, cause you’re not gonna be underweight at your goal. There are just 2 things you have to remember: first, you might not necessarily get down to 110lb. You’re older now, and it is ok to be a bit heavier, so don’t drive yourself crazy if you don’t get to that number exactly. What matters is your size, not what the scale says.

    Second, why diet pills? Have you considered starting an exercise routine and eating healthier? They would work without endangering you and without making you gain all the weight back when you stopped them, like diet pills do (if they work at all, that is – a lot of what is being sold out there doesn’t).

  23. Katie

    I am 21, and moved away to college for the first time last year. I have always been considered petite all through high school. I have always been smaller than everyone else. I put on about 25-30 pounds since I have entered college, not really feeling that it would affect ne but now it really is. I am considering buying diet pills, I know they are not good for me but I really want to get down to about 110 pounds from 140. I am 5’4″ and I am debating whether or not I should follow through with this. The thing is I have never wanted to be fat and now I want to be tiny, so am I just being ridiculous?

  24. Marissa

    Im a 17 year old girl about to enter college. I have suffered from anorexia in 11th grade. Ive always been thin but when I weighed in at 115 being 5’4 in 11th grade I thought I was fat. I was also eating unusually high amounts of food every day for months at a time. Im pretty sure it was to make up for whatever was dissatisfing my at that time. Anyway when I became anorexic i dropped to 98, then began to eat again, only to enter summer and loose more weight based on exercise and controlled food intake. Im currently 90 lbs 5’5 and in senior year. My Doctor is constantly bitching to me but no matter what I do, I cant gain significant amouints of weight anymore, now that I am much more active than I was the previous year. Sometimes I overeat just to make my parents happy, and foods I dont even enjoy eating. I want to forget about my weight for a whjle so I can focus on getting into the college of my choice but since my parents are so forceful about me being underweight I cant get away from the dillema. I eat just as much as normal weight person now and Im totally okay with it. Any suggestions to help me get my mind off of this?

  25. Carrie

    I think I know how you feel Maggie… I am very close to you in stature…5’4″ with curves, and 18 yrs old. When I start to diet I get scared to stop b/c of the fear od gaining it back. The help I got was from my mom…She is a health freak, but she knows what she’s talkin about… The best way to keep off weight is to EXERCISE. Yeah…it was hard for me, and I am still workin at it, but I go 30 minutes of jogging, biking, or hiking at least 5 days a week, and I do Pilates every other day. It seems to be working!… Also, concerning your caloric intake, you should try going for 5 to 6 small meals a day, about 3 hrs apart each. It keeps you full and energized without eating much, I think it would help your dizziness and fatigue. I feel so much better even after only doing it for about a week. Not only will it help you lose more and keep it off, but you’ll feel great on the inside too!

  26. Maggie

    I’m a 19 yr old college student, and I’m starting to scare myself. I’m 5’3″ with curves, which means that I’ll never be stick skinny, but right now, I’m averaging about 1000-1200 calories per day, usually on the lower side. Every time I eat, I feel extremely guilty, and although I’ve lost ten pounds (in a month – not good), I’m afraid to stop dieting, as I could gain the weight back. I’m dizzy and forgetful and tired during the day, and I know it’s from the dieting, but I can’t stop, I know I’ll gain that weight back. Is there any way to keep it off and still maintain a healthy eating style without becoming the fat load I feel like I was before?

  27. Yan

    Kirlin: becoming anorexic does not take a certain amount of days. Many people fast and are NOT eating disordered. An eating disorder -be it starvation, purging or overeating- is a state of mind more so than body and amount of starvation.
    Chances are, if you have to ask… you’ll never know (ok, maybe never is too strong; just asking that question is saying something).
    By the way, most anorexics do eat, just much smaller quantities.

  28. kirlin

    hey i was wondering how many days does it take without eating for someone to become anorexic?

  29. Sandy

    I’m 24 years old. I started to diet since I was 16 years old. I am 5’2 all. I was 115 pounds weighed. It was my highest record. When I was in university, I tried to control my weight around 99 pounds. I don’t smoke and I get fat easily. I think the key point to keep fit and skinny is having meal regularly and not to eat too much. If you eat too many chocolates or something else, don’t feel bad. We are human-beings, not robots~~~ But try to eat less on the second day. Sometimes I only have some fruits, if I eat too much the day before. Dieting is a long-term project. Don’t lose yourself. ^_^

  30. Emily

    I’m a 20 yr old college student too and I have been struggling with bulimia and anorexia since highschool. My problem has only escalated in college and I definitely have had those exact same thoughts about having to loose weight for spring break or summer. The first time that I went on a diet (at age 12) was to loose weight for the summer to look skinny compared to my classmates and to be able to wear cute belly baring tank tops. I was so influenced by the skinny models in magazines and the sterotypical hot girls from MTV’s spring break. I didnt know at the time what kind of hell and demons I’d be unleashing on myself. I’m 5’2 and with a naturally atheltic build. No matter what I do i’ll never be model skinny and i’ll never have a tiny waist and long legs. All these years i’ve litteraly been killing myself to achieve some unrealistic image. My eating disorder now completely runs my life and its everything i think about. My self-esteem is zero. I even didnt go to my prom b/c I didn’t want to show up looking so fat and ugly. And like me there are so many girls and this is definitlely a huge epidemic. Something has to be done to promote a healthy image to girls because there is now a nation of girls with shattered self-esteems who are dying and making themselves sick in order to be something they’re not. The media (especially magazines and high fashion designers) needs to seriously and sincerely promote beauty in all its forms.

  31. Lynn

    Please, PLEASE, stop the Insanity! As a former “fat girl”, who at 5’2 used to weight 190 pounds, and for the last 3 years weighs a healthy 125 pounds, I have to tell you – the “secret” just isn’t that complicated. Eat three meals and 2-3 snacks every day, include protein EVERY time you eat, eat higher fiber grains, fruits and veggies, and a little “good fat” like olive oil, nuts, fish, peanut butter, “Take Control” margarine, and STOP eating all fried food, high fat meat and dairy, and refined carbs (no fruit juice, no bread with less than 2 grams of FIBER per slice, no cereal with less than 4 grams of fiber per serving). Have skim milk, low fat cheese, and skinless poultry. Honest to God, it will work. Walk/jog briskly for 30 minutes 6 days per week, and do a little weight training/strength two or three times per week, and you’ll be HEALTHY, HAPPY, and SLIM. I promise. By the way, cigarette smokers eventually get fatter than nonsmokers – so if you’re smoking to keep your weight down now, be prepared to be a porky 40 year old (or a dead one from lung disease). And don’t forget those fabulous wrinkles – I’ve seen 28 year old smokers who look 50…

  32. Randy Smith

    A diet may be defined as “a regulated selection of foods, as for medical reasons or cosmetic weight loss.”

    These categories are really not so much diets as they are unhealthy behaviors (skipped breakfast, smoking) and symptoms of psychiatric disorders (self induced vomiting and laxative abuse).

  33. Amit

    Those are seriously disturbing stats and no bloke can ever understand the pressures that women go through in order to feel good about themselves. There has to be more a proactive attitude in tackling a problem of this nature from early on.

  34. violetgirl

    I have to respond to Jen – I too cut my calories to about 1000 a day in an attempt to lose weight and it sure did work, I lost the weight, as well as my energy, self-esteem, patience and sanity! I felt like I would pass out all the time and hated anyone I saw eating a normal meal. After a year of this ridiculousness I stopped starving myself and now eat about 1800 calories a day. I did put on some extra weight at FIRST, but my body adjusted after 3 months and now I am at a normal, healthy weight and am much happier! Who cares what other people think when you can’t even stand up and are miserable. I have been there, and I will take a few extra pounds over chronic exhaustion any day!

  35. Yan

    I’m not saying that this is to be condoned, but maybe there are reasons why they don’t appear to be thinner?Perhaps as time goes by people have to work harder to stay leaner or here’s another thing: maybe there isn’t much of a difference in body weights because the research does not take into account each individuals difference in weight over a certain period of time rather than their general weight on the whole measured in an instantaneous quality.
    Stress also pplays a huge role in college life, and it does interfere with weight loss, so it could be yet another reason.
    I’m only saying that whatever unhealthy things they do should technically work at reducing some weight. Granted they lead to things like dehydration, slower metabolisms, cancers and heart attacks amongst a plethora of other things, but still. Ah yes: to be young, live in the moment and feel invinsible (feel the sarcasm).

  36. Jen

    It is so sad to read through a list of unhealthy behaviors and put little check marks next to all of them in your mind. I’m a 19 year old girl attending college, and the 25 pounds that I have gained in the last two years have made me more miserable than anything. I think about my weight and my body CONSTANTLY, and I would do anything to have my life and my confidence back. I’ve ended up restricting my calories to under 1000 per day, which trust me does not help AT ALL. All it did was make me too tired to function throughout the day, and after losing about 5 pounds my body/metabolism just adjusted to the new energy intake. When I try to return to a normal dietary intake of 1600 calories a day (I had to laugh when the nutritionist suggested this past summer that I *reduce* my calories to 1600 in order to lose weight; I was like–that’s more than I eat now) I gain even more weight back and then I just cry because I feel so trapped. What should I do? Anyone?

  37. Chelsee

    I am also a 20 year old college student and I have to say that, at least in my experience, those figures are probably very accurate. All of my female friends who smoke smoke for weight control, including myself. There is constant commenting on “I shouldn’t eat that” or “I really need to go to the gym more often, I am so fat and lazy!” etc etc.
    Though I have not been able to accept my body yet, I can see that there is a definate problem in college-aged women. After all, isn’t it something like one in four college-aged women is eating disordered or displays disordered eating? (I’ll double check that stat)

  38. Noelle

    Yeah. I’m a college girl. 20 years old. When I first got to school – it was a nightmare emotionally. I didn’t feel skinny enough, didn’t have self confidence in myself, and got caught in the webb of dangerous dieting. By my second semester I was going through a vicious cycle of restricting, taking 9 diet pills a day, and occationally binging…only to take laxatives right after to rid myself of my mistake. Thankfully, I am no longer ingaging in any of those activities…thank GOD!! It was a horrible life style. Sadly, most girls don’t learn the right and healthy ways of eating, exercise and losing/maintaining weight. Most of my friends here at college all feel horrible about themselves one way or the other and at some point try to restrict what they eat or lose weight.
    Oh how I wish our society did promote more spiritual, physical, emotional and mental wholeness!!

    Thanks for the posts.

  39. Spectra

    I knew quite a few girls in college that smoked because they claimed it helped them stay thin. I even knew someone who STARTED smoking just because she wanted to lose weight. And I knew SO many girls that used diet pills and/or amphetamines to both “focus” AND lose weight. Very unhealthy!