The university years bring new friends, new ideas and, sometimes, an eating disorder.

Sally Willis-Stewart, director of the Nutrition Education Centre at UBC Okanagan, says campuses are breeding grounds for eating disorders because the young students are struggling to fit in and post-secondary life is a big transition.

"They're pretty common, and one of the challenging things is we don't know the exact numbers … it's a very 'closet' disorder," Willis-Stewart told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

"There are certainly more people on campuses and in upper-level educational environments that do have eating disorders."

Willis-Stewart runs an eating disorder prevention program on campus and says one of the goals of that program — as well as National Eating Disorder Week, which concludes this weekend — is to catch disordered eating behaviour before it turns into a full-fledged eating disorder.

Why university students?

Willis-Stewart says a combination of factors make post-secondary students more likely to develop eating disorders: the age of students; being in a new, competitive environment; fitting in and figuring out the rest of one's life.

She says post-secondary institutions can help the problem by creating an environment that supports students' overall mental health and by educating students on what disordered eating behaviours are.

Unfortunately, she says the numbers of students suffering eating disorders is going in the wrong direction.

"I think we're seeing a rise … It's very, very challenging. If we look at treatment statistics, they're not that great," she said. "There's such a backlog of resources and required help. So we need more research in the area, we need more treatment and help facilities in this area, and that is part of what this campaign is about."

Willis-Stewart says if a person suspects a friend or family member has an eating disorder, they should approach it "gingerly" to not make them defensive.

She says the biggest thing is to talk openly, get them to look at their eating habits and get professional help.

"But the biggest thing is they want to feel supported, that someone is there to help them, not to challenge them," she said.

To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Post-secondary students at higher risk of eating disorders, researcher says