While pursuing her master’s degree at Harvard University, Ph.D student Sarah Ketchen-Lipson became increasingly intrigued by the disordered eating habits of the young undergraduates in the freshman residence hall where she resided.
Lipson is now translating her interest in student relationships to food as a co-principal investigator to one of the largest studies on student eating patterns in the University’s history. Starting this fall, Lipson and Suzanne Dooley-Hash, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, will facilitate a survey in collaboration with the Center for Eating Disorders that will be sent to a random sample of 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, where they will answer a series of questions about eating habits.
“It would be great if we get a really good response rate,” Dooley-Hash said. “I know that people get a lot of surveys and it’s hard to find time to fill them all out but we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we get a fairly decent response rate.”
Lipson met Dooley-Hash after starting her doctoral program in the University’s School of Education. She expressed interest in mental health of post-secondary students with an emphasis on eating and eating disorders, and was later introduced to Dooley-Hash after working with Daniel Eisenberg, an assistant professor of health management and policy.
When the duo discovered that a $20,000 grant from the Global Foundation For Eating Disorders could help fund their research initiatives, they decided to proceed together.
Dooley-Hash said the study is expansive focus of the study is critical to understanding relationships with food and developing eating order prevention methods as diets and eating become increasingly popular in today’s culture.
“It seems important to look at the whole campus and the whole student body so that we can design interventions and … prevention methods that apply to everybody,” Dooley-Hash said. “What we’re hoping to come out of it is that we get a better idea of how campus life influences people as far as their eating behaviors and body image and all of those kind of things.”
Lipson said U-SHAPE is different from previous studies because the survey is campus wide, as opposed to previous studies that have been conducted within subgroups of campus, such as sororities.
“We’re casting the umbrella much wider to say we’re interested in a student’s life that might just be a little bit more difficult because they have negative body image and what can we try to do help that student,” Lipson said. “So the questions were asking are different because they’re interested in this broader range of topics related to eating, body image and not just the sort of diagnosable characteristics.”
After conducting the survey this fall at the University, U-SHAPE will expand to Michigan State University in the winter and they hope to eventually spread to campuses nationwide.
Dooley-Hash noted that eating disorders can have serious consequences for college students, noting that dropping out of school is the most common result.
“Long term-wise it can interfere with basically everything in life, forming relationships, getting a job, finishing school (and) health consequences,” Dooley-Hash said. “Actually eating disorders have a really high mortality rate compared to other mental illnesses. About 10 percent of people die from eating disorders that have them for long term.”
Similarly, she said eating disorders are being more commonly diagnosed, though Dooley-Hash clarified this may not be due to an increased prevalence, but rather an increased awareness of the symptoms.
Lipson said that she believes that students, especially those just starting college, use eating disorders to feel more in control amid stress over their studies and social situations.
Still, because there is no full set of data to confirm this, she said that conclusion is drawn from collections of smaller sets of data, and U-SHAPE hopes to fill the void in information in order to develop more advanced prevention and intervention methods.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article did not mention one of the principal collaborators in the study.