Effects of Peer Dieting in College Are Long-Lasting

Numerous studies have explored the effects of peer influence on dieting among adolescents. However, few studies have looked at how young adult peers affect dieting behaviors in college-aged individuals and how these behaviors may persist throughout early adulthood. Friendships that are formed in college can be life-long, but for many people these relationships last only as long as the college experience. Living with a college roommate creates an environment of shared behaviors, values, and influences. Some of the behaviors that are adopted during college years include academic study habits and appreciation for particular styles, music, or food. But negative behaviors also develop during this time. One such behavior is an obsession with thinness that involves unhealthy eating and dieting. When one roommate engages in unhealthy eating behaviors such as binging and purging, the other roommate may begin to internalize their beliefs about eating and food with relation to thinness. Pamela K. Keel of the Department of Psychology at Florida State University wanted to find out if the influence of peer dieting behavior in college persisted throughout young adulthood.

Keel recently led a study that assessed how peer dieting in college affected binging and purging behaviors in 233 men and 566 women 10 years later. She found that the female participants with high levels of purging and bulimic behaviors at follow-up were more likely to have college roommates who dieted frequently. Even though the women and men in the study had undergone significant life changes, including careers, marriage, and childbirth, the impact of the college roommate’s dieting was significant. For men, the results were quite different. Male participants reported less maladaptive eating behaviors at follow-up, and their roommates dieted less often than the female roommates.

Keel believes the reason women had eating problems as they matured was due to their internalization of thin ideals that developed during college years, a critical time of identity formation. Based on this evidence, she hopes future studies will include larger male samples and look more closely at male exercising as a predictor of eating problems. Until then, these findings provide ample evidence of the persistent effects of peer dieting behavior. “Results reinforce the importance of implementing college-based prevention programs because college may represent a period of exposure to risky peer behaviors with potentially long-lasting effects,” Keel said.

Keel, P. K., Forney, K. J., Brown, T. A., Heatherton, T. F. (2012). Influence of college peers on disordered eating in women and men at 10-year follow-up. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030081

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  • Amy

    October 20th, 2012 at 4:58 AM

    I can so relate to this but in a little but of a different way, but since it started at about the same time in my life I do think that it is relevant. When I was a senior in high scholl i was dating very seriously this guy that I thought might be the one, kind of the way anyone you date at this time you kind of think that way about. Okay, so I decided to go to a school far from home and he was all sad and all but fairly supportive. But then right before I left he asked me to please not put on that freshman 15 for when he saw me the next time, and that actually if I could find a way to lose about 10 pounds then I would look even better. I had really never given any thought to needing to go on a diet until he made that comment to me. Obviously the relationship did not last the long distance that it was now up against, but his words have haunted me since. I am a grown women almost 40 now, and still every day is spent obsessing over what I do or don’t eat. It is very telling to look back and think about just how much power those words from someone whom I have not even seen in over 20 years now still hold so much sway and control over my life.

  • darcy

    October 20th, 2012 at 8:07 AM

    Everyone always talks about the formative years being the ones early in life

    personally I think that what we can take away from this is that anything can be formative and demeaning if it hits you the exact right way

  • george

    October 20th, 2012 at 1:24 PM

    while those around you can and will influence your decisions quite a bit the basic fact always remains no matter what the topic is- pick up the good things and leave out the negatives,filter them out.if your roommate is starving herself with a mindless diet plan then you dont have to follow.how hard is that anyway?

  • Adrian

    October 22nd, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    Why does it matter so much what other people think?

  • Emerson

    October 22nd, 2012 at 10:59 AM

    @ Adrian-
    I think that you will find that a lot of this matters because as women we very much let what other people think about us influence how we think about ourselves. Right or wrong that’s the way it is. That’s why it is clearly important to choose the right friends to hang around, friends who are going to influence you in a positive way versus those who are going to bring you down and bring you trouble. A lot of this could be prevented with the help of good parents and friends from home who have always set you up to help you succeed over fail, because that is where the strength to reject so many of these hurtful things will come from.

  • susan

    October 22nd, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    I wish I could sustain my dieting even after college.although I am aware what I did back then was somewhat unhealthy I would trade that for the belly I presently have any day! ;)

  • Kolton

    October 23rd, 2012 at 7:44 AM

    If you allow yourself to be carried away by something that your friend in college is following without actually assessing it,then that is the first mistake.It can only go downhill from there unless there is a realization that no two people are equal,that you need not starve to diet,and that diet by itself means to eat healthy and not chase a airbrushed model’s pictures.

    If you do not realize that even after college then the diet fad is going to haunt you for the rest of your life!

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