A new study shows a preliminary association between vaping and higher odds of an eating disorder diagnosis and increased risk for having an eating disorder.

The study, published in the scientific journal Eating Behaviors, focused on a sample of nearly 52,000 college students and their habits that was pulled from an annual Healthy Minds Study survey, according to Kyle Ganson, one author of the study and an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

“What we looked at was whether or not those two factors, lifetime history of eating disorder and also eating disorder risk, was associated with vaping,” Ganson said. “What we found is that if you did vape in the past 30 days in some capacity, you are more likely to screen positive for an eating disorder.”

The study focused on college students due to the commonality of disordered eating and substance use among their demographic, according to Ganson.

“Most people who are going to be diagnosed with an eating disorder are going to be diagnosed around 18 to 20 [years old],” Ganson said. “This sort of college sample is ripe with mental health and substance issues.”

Ganson said both the behaviors of eating disorders and vaping are an important topic of investigation among such a “high risk” population.

“College age, young people are all about experimenting and independence and making choices,” Ganson said, “but there’s a line between fun, normal exploration and pretty serious, problematic behaviors.”

Eating disorders commonly coincide with many other health issues unrelated to food, according to Ganson.

“Generally, we know that for people who experience eating disorders, there’s overlap with substance use and other mental health issues,” Ganson said. 

Casey Tallent, the director of collegiate and telebehavioral health initiatives at the Eating Recovery Center, specializes in improving eating disorder treatment and services on college campuses. 

“The findings about the correlations of vaping and self-reported eating disorder prevalence rate isn’t surprising,” Tallent said. “We see a high comorbidity in eating disorders and substance use as both substance use and eating disorders are often methods of coping for anxiety or depression that become the primary problem.”

The study also found nicotine vaping is the most common form of vaping among those diagnosed with an eating disorder.

“If you’re vaping nicotine it can be sort of helpful for suppressing your appetite,” Ganson said. “If you’re vaping flavors it might be a way to sort of experience food flavors if you’re actually restricting your food. So there’s definitely some nuances of why people might use vaping in the context of eating disorder-related behaviors.” 

The development of an eating disorder or a substance use problem tends to worsen other mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression, according to Tallent.

“In treatment, once we treat the underlying anxiety and depression and teach mindfulness so that one doesn’t need an escape from their emotions,” Tallent said. “The need to engage in disordered eating or substance use dramatically decreases.”

Ganson said he hopes for campuses across the country to “see the need” for continued efforts around mental health and substance use awareness.

“I think what [the study] means is we certainly need more college health-related interventions or… initiatives to help raise some awareness about this and potentially reduce the use of vaping and e-cigarettes,” Ganson said.