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College Students Who Vape Are at a Higher Risk for Eating Disorders

Teen vaping.

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Key Takeaways

  • New research finds that there's a possible link between vaping and eating disorders among college students.
  • People with eating disorders often also experience other mental disorders, such as substance abuse.
  • Learning more about the connection between vaping and eating disorders can help clinicians better screen people and improve early intervention. 

College students who vape and smoke e-cigarettes are at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder, new research finds.

These new findings match up with previous research that shows people who have eating disorders are likely to have other mental disorders, such as substance abuse. But learning more about the connection between vaping and eating disorders could help clinicians better screen young people and improve targeting for early intervention. 

A 2011 study found eating disorders had increased on college campuses from 7.9% to 25% for men, and from 23.4% to 32.6% for women, over a 13-year period.

Plus, this link could possibly become more prevalent as the pandemic exacerbates both nicotine consumption and disordered eating. The September study was published in the journal Eating Behaviors.

“If we address the group causes of eating disorders—such as weight stigma and all—we would likely see a decrease in vaping," Kyle T. Gansom, PhD, MSW, lead author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, tells Verywell. "And I think vice versa if we were able to decrease vaping, we may likely see a decrease in eating disorders and other mental health problems. We can tackle the issues on both ends.”

Vaping and Eating Disorders Are Connected

For this study, researchers from the University of Toronto pored over information on more than 51,000 college students in the United States who have been self-reporting data about themselves as part of a large, long-term study.

In evaluating the responses of participants, the scientists noted that there were associations between self-reported vaping and eating disorder diagnosis. 

“What we found was that those who engaged in vaping over the last 30 days were more likely to have any lifetime eating disorder diagnosis,” Ganson says. Nineteen percent of participants reported vaping or e-cigarette use in the past 30 days.

Among those vaping, the prevalence of an eating disorder diagnosis was at 5.8% and elevated eating disorder risk was at 29.6%. These numbers were higher compared to those who did not vape.

Eating disorder risk remained higher for people who vaped even when researchers factored in all other eating disorder risk factors, such as biological and psychological ones.

In general, among those who reported vaping or e-cigarette use, nicotine vaping was the most common to have been recently used among participants with and without eating disorder symptoms.

“The reason for this is probably multifaceted,” Ganson says. “Certainly we know that people who have eating disorders are more likely to smoke cigarettes and more likely to use substances, in general. Using these substances, especially like vaping nicotine, can certainly affect disordered eating by having appetite suppressing effects and metabolic effects…which might help people reduce weight.”

There's likely an emotion regulation component to it, too. “I think people who have eating disorders have issues with emotional regulation, which I think if you're using substances such as these, it's another way of managing your emotions," Ganson says.

What This Means For You

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, you can call or text the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at (800) 931-2237 for help with finding resources and treatment. You can also use their online chat feature here.

Clinicians Should Screen for Both

These findings are especially important in light of a surge in eating disorders and substance use disorders during the pandemic. 

“It is not surprising to see higher rates of eating disorders in a cohort of vaping or e-cigarette users or vice versa,” Harry Brandt, MD, regional medical director at the Eating Recovery Center, who was not involved in the study, tells Verywell. “Generally, eating disorders have high rates of comorbidity including depression, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders.”

This association between vaping and eating disorders warrants further study, according to Brandt. 

The researchers also call for more nationwide regulation about what young adults can and cannot freely buy, in order to fully protect the health and well-being of young people.

Prevention efforts should be directed toward populations at high risk, according to Ganson. College health professionals really need to be aware of this correlation and start screening for eating disorders and other mental health issues among students who use substances, according to the researchers.

“Among students who use substances, clinicians should be screening for eating disorder symptoms or other mental health as well,” Ganson says. “Because it's probably likely that there's some overlap happening.”

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2 Sources
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  1. 6. White S, Reynolds-Malear J, Cordero E. Disordered Eating and the Use of Unhealthy Weight Control Methods in College Students: 1995, 2002, and 2008. Eat Disord. 2011;19(4):323-334. doi:10.1080/10640266.2011.584805

  2. Ganson K, Nagata J. Associations between vaping and eating disorder diagnosis and risk among college students. Eat Behav. 2021;43:101566. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2021.101566