INSPIRE Study at VCU Examines Eating Habits and Body Image

Transitioning to college is an especially high-risk time for developing disordered eating habits and unhealthy weight control behaviors. Many students report unanticipated challenges to maintaining a healthy lifestyle like multiple “all-you-can-eat” dining facilities, easy access to calorie-dense foods and high alcohol consumption. Physical activity levels also tend to decline in college.

Worsening eating habits and reductions in exercise frequency in college are accompanied by large increases in body dissatisfaction, dieting and weight control practices. In fact, eating disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses on college campuses. Prevalence estimates suggest that approximately 13.1% of young women in the US experience an eating disorder in their lifetime; however, many more young women engage in unhealthy weight control behaviors that are linked to diminished well being and life impairment.

These issues are particularly prevalent for young adult women (age 18-25) who, more than any other age and gender group, exhibit unhealthy eating behaviors, diet pill and laxative abuse, binge eating and self-induced vomiting.

Many college women strive to achieve unattainable and unrealistic beauty ideals, and peer reinforcement of these beauty ideals often motivates attempts to modify appearance. This pressure to modify appearance is an important contributor to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in women.

Additionally, transitioning to the college environment is associated with stress as students adapt to having more independence and experiencing greater academic pressure. High stress is also linked with the development of disordered eating habits and unhealthy weight behaviors. In fact, college women often report consuming junk food or overeating to help manage stressful emotions during this time of life.  

Overall, eating habits worsen and physical activity levels decline in college. This is concerning because health habits during college are linked to lifelong behaviors. Therefore, college is a critical time to help students optimize their food and activity-related behaviors.

So what are we doing about this at VCU?

Dr. Suzanne Mazzeo and her students have created a research program, INSPIRE (Inspiring Nutritious Selections and Positive Intentions Regarding Eating and Exercise), to help promote body love and balanced, healthy living in young adult college women aged 18-25.

This research program will begin in September and will occur once a week (either Monday or Tuesday nights) for eight weeks. The program will be group based and include fun, interactive content designed to help women of all races and ethnicities improve their body satisfaction and enhance wellness.

All group participants will be compensated monetarily for attending three one-house assessment to complete interviews and surveys. All study activities will take place at The Well.

For more information and to see if you are eligible, please email Courtney Simpson with VCU’s Department of Psychology at