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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