Project Overview

Campus members experience a variety of relationships (some healthy, some not) with food and with alcohol or other drugs. There also seems to be a synergism in the relationship where food and substances intersect, which can contribute to increased risk of health harms. The Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, Jessie’s Legacy Eating Disorders Prevention Program, and the Canadian Mental Health Association – BC Division[i] invite BC post-secondary institutions to help us think through the issues related to the intersection of substance use and eating difficulties in campus settings. 


[i] We are members of BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, a group of seven mental health and substance use non-profit agencies. The BC Partners are funded by BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority.


Eating and substance use are associated with significant health issues on college campuses. Like sex and other feel good things in life, food and psychoactive substances change the way people feel. And, just as food and substances have benefits, they can also lead to trouble, including problems with health.  Campus members experience a continuum of healthy to unhealthy relationships with food and substances. There also seems to be a synergism in the relationship where food and substances intersect which can contribute to increased risk of health-related harms.  

When we think about people and their relationships with food and substances, it is important to keep in mind all the factors that can contribute to a person’s choices. A multi-lens perspective helps draw attention to the range of influences  ̶  from personal characteristics to broad social factors  ̶  that shape behaviours. This orientation can be applied in a variety of settings, including campuses, to help guide responses. 

Difficulties around eating and substance use are not yet fully understood. It seems likely that a range of behaviours and contributing factors, including biological, psychological, social and environmental are involved.  The co-occurrence of “binge eating” and “binge drinking” is associated with increased risk and harm. In fact many of the behaviours traditionally associated with unhealthy patterns of alcohol consumption (especially problems at work or school and regretted sexual activity) are increased when “binge eating” and “binge drinking” occur together. And, the negative effects appear to be greater than the sum of what is associated with each independently. 

While specific eating disorders are largely confined to women, the rates of binge eating are (at least according to one study) comparable for male and female students. And while male students may be more likely to binge drink, female students may be more likely to adopt unhealthy strategies for weight loss. 

Some promising practices are emerging to guide a campus response. In regard to concerns around substance use, research has emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach that will both address environmental factors and relate to individual needs. A socio-ecological model of health promotion provides a helpful framework for selecting and directing strategies that can together comprise a consistent, coherent response to prevent, treat and reduce the harm from difficulties around eating and substance use among college students.  Within a health promotion strategy, it is important to help everyone avoid problems as well as help those who are already experiencing problems to overcome them.

Promising Prevention Initiatives

  • Social marketing initiatives, with sustained effort, can be successful in countering common myths and stereotypes and in promoting positive behaviours
  • Educational efforts can reinforce social marketing messages by providing opportunity to critically evaluate various cultural messages and to understand the complex factors that influence our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours
  • Healthy public policies can increase the impact of other initiatives while independently promoting healthy lifestyle choices (making the healthy choice the easy choice) and by shaping the institutional culture

Promising Treatment Initiatives   

  • Addressing the consequences of problems related to unhealthy eating and substance use simultaneously, rather than sequentially, is more likely to be effective
  • Integrated systems for screening, brief intervention and more intensive and extended clinical provisions are recommended and tools need to be developed
  • Motivational enhancement approaches have shown encouraging results

Get Involved

We are inviting campuses to help us examine the following issues and questions with regard to food and substance use:

  • How do campus members experience their relationships with food and substances and their intersection?
  • Why do these relationships exist (what is influencing these experiences in the campus environment)? 
  • What factors influence “eating and drinking” problems on campus?
  • What barriers and facilitators might influence our health promotion efforts?
  • How can campuses be supportive in creating healthier relationships with both food and substances?
  • How can we support each other to address the issues more effectively?

If you are interested in participating in this project or would like to receive more information about it, please contact Tim Dyck at [email protected]

Tools and Resources

Healthy Relationships with Food & Substances on Campuses - Framework for Moving Forward

This framework is meant to reflect back what was discussed in the focus groups, and to give others a sense of what was shared. The intent is to use these ideas and observations to help campuses determine how they want to move forward with health promotion in this area and how the partners (CARBC, JL, CMHA BC) can support them.

Download Tool
Food and Substance Use Project

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