Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, September 24, 2012

Campuswide study to examine student attitudes about eating, body image

Research shows that 70-90 percent of university students want to lose weight and engage in perpetual dieting, with nearly two-thirds of female college students having a mild or emerging eating problem that is undiagnosed.


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Existing studies indicate that 60 percent of college women diet or binge eat, and 69 percent use diet pills, diuretics, fasting or purging to control their weight. The prevalence of bulimia nervosa among this population is reported to be as high as 19 percent.

And women are not alone in experiencing eating disorders. One study found that 9 percent of college-aged men suffer from such issues, with 3 percent reporting binge eating and self-induced vomiting.

Despite what is known about this disordered eating on college campuses, U-M researchers believe there is more to be done to understand and respond to these issues. So they plan to conduct the most comprehensive survey to date on the attitudes and behaviors of university students regarding eating and body image.

A multidisciplinary team of faculty, researchers and counselors from the School of Public Health, School of Education, the Medical School, University Health Service, Counseling and Psychological Services and Ann Arbor's Center for Eating Disorders developed U-SHAPE: University Study of Habits, Attitudes, and Perceptions around Eating.

"U-SHAPE's large-scale Web-based survey is designed to gather important information about the ways in which individual characteristics as well as the campus environment influence students' relationships with eating, dieting, exercise, and body image, and how these relationships, in turn, fit into a larger picture of student mental health," explains Sarah Ketchen Lipson, co-principal investigator of the study and a doctoral student in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. "The goal is that data gathered through U-SHAPE will inform policy and programming on our campus and at colleges and universities across the country."

Dr. Suzanne Dooley-Hash, assistant professor of emergency medicine, U-M Health System, and co-principal investigator of U-SHAPE has conducted considerable research herself on adolescents and eating disorders. She notes the void that U-SHAPE is poised to fill.

"Most of the studies out there on disordered eating among college students have focused on a specific subset of the student population — athletic teams, psychology classes, sorority members, and other smaller, targeted samples. We are conducting our study using a random survey of 10,000 University of Michigan undergraduate and graduate students. Our goal is to understand their habits, attitudes and perceptions of eating and body image, in a way that can inform future research and practice," she says.

The U-SHAPE survey was developed with the input of campus administrators and experts in the field of college student mental health, and has been pre-tested with undergraduate and graduate students. The U-SHAPE survey officially will launch at U-M Oct. 2. The survey will be open from Oct. 2-24, and results are expected by the end of the year.