The first-ever survey of eating attitudes and behaviors at Princeton revealed high rates of eating disorders among University undergraduates, including a significant number of men, and a lack of knowledge on eating disorders and counseling services.
Nine percent of the respondents reported having an eating disorder in an online questionnaire — administered by the Eating Concerns Peer Educators (ECPE) — in the spring of 2004.
Among those who reported eating disorders, 53% said their eating disorders began at Princeton. The peer educators stressed, however, that this correlation does not prove a causal connection between the Princeton environment and the prevalence of eating disorders.
"That's not to say that Princeton somehow creates this problem," said Olivia Albrecht '05, a member of ECPE. "Coming to college happens to be a transition time."
Thirteen percent of respondents reported limiting food intake to influence their body image, and 12 percent have a Body Mass Index — a standardized height-to-weight ratio — below 19.5, the lowest ratio in the healthy weight range.
Of 900 randomly selected students, 379 completed the online questionnaire.
The survey, proposed last year by ECPE members Christina Roberto '04 and Amy Schnall '04, was intended to challenge prevailing attitudes toward eating disorders on campus, peer educators said.
"There's a cause for concern on campus, and that's both individually speaking and Princeton as a campus itself," said Albrecht. "It seemed like the right answer to getting some serious changes was to quantify the numbers."
Armed with the survey results, the peer educators hope to alert administrators to the problem of eating disorders at the University and garner support for ECPE programs, including counseling, group discussions and campus-wide events.
University students reacted with surprise to the survey results.
"Fifty-three percent is a big number," said Charlotte Whalen '05, referring to the proportion of students with eating disorders who said they developed the disorder while at Princeton. "That's more than half. I mean, that's a problem."
Gabriel Love, a graduate student in philosophy, was taken aback as well.
"It's a bit surprising that one out of 10 students have eating disorders," he said. "I would think it would be more like one in 20."
Members of the ECPE — who act as liaisons between University Health Services, and the student body — argued that eating disorders have not received enough attention from the University.
"There's this assumption that because everyone knows this is a problem, that everyone's knowledgeable," said Dr. Annette Santiago-Espana, coordinator of the ECPE program and a psychologist on the eating disorders team at McCosh Health Center.
The results of the survey indicate otherwise.
The "Knowledge Assessment" portion of the survey examined students' familiarity with various facts about eating disorders.
"There's no reason why people shouldn't get a perfect score on this," said Monica Wojcik '07 of ECPE.
Nevertheless, students' answers were not nearly as accurate as the ECPE expected, said Pete Tedesco '05.
"We found there's pretty low general knowledge of these issues," Tedesco, a peer educator, said. "We hope to be able to help with that."
The survey is the first of its kind in the Ivy League, making comparisons with the level of eating disorder awareness at other schools difficult.
The survey "is essentially groundbreaking across national colleges," Albrecht said.
ECPE said they hope their survey will motivate other universities to examine students' eating patterns.
"It's a greater problem for women than for men," Tedesco said. But he added that males suffer from eating disorders as well, whether they are trying to gain weight or lose it.
The peer educators have already begun to look to the future.
Since ECPE is a subgroup of Health Services, the group is unable to apply for money through organizations like the USG projects board.
The members hope the survey results will help them acquire more funding to educate the Princeton campus about eating disorders, Tedesco said.
In addition, the peer educators aim to target students in the residential colleges by speaking at mandatory Residential College Advisor group meetings, and also hope to secure a spot in the Freshman Orientation Week lineup.
"We've noticed that it's important to get to people when they're freshmen," Tedesco said, "to be able to educate them about these things when they're first coming in."
Peer educators also said they hope to expand the training that RCAs receive on how to handle issues related to eating disorders.
Roberto said more intensive data analysis — particularly on gender and race subsets — must still be performed. But she added that the survey has already been well-received by the University administration, and that she felt optimistic about ECPE's capacity to help students with eating disorders in the future.
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