A fifth of students are thought to be suffering from severe eating disorders that threaten their mental and physical wellbeing.
Deanne Jade, principal of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, has found that 200 in every 1,000 higher education students are suffering from a "severely flawed relationship with food". Up to 30 are anorexic and up to 80 are bulimic. A further 150 may be compulsively overeating.
Reasons suggested include the stress of leaving home and the challenge of establishing status in a new and competitive pecking order. A lack of regular eating slots or any routine work schedule can compound problems.
"Many students are away from home for the first time for any extended period and are grappling with looking after themselves," Ms Jade writes in the Journal of the Association of University and College Counsellors .
Ms Jade adds: "Unwashed clothes, slashed denim and retro chic are the uniform of peer allegiance. Underneath all that, however, body shape remains a core part of personal status, especially for women."
Research suggests that about 70 per cent of women students are unhappy with their body weight. About half restrict their food intake but only half of these are overweight. "Hidden among the dieters in a student population, a significant number are suffering from eating behaviours sufficiently distorted as to destroy their sense of worth, interfere with normal functioning and subsume the ability to cope with the demands of normal life."
It is likely that students with eating disorders have the condition when they arrive at university, but the student lifestyle tends to nurture their problems, Ms Jade says.
"Lack of a regular structure to the day, coping with the needs of peers, not having a predictable food supply, lack of money and the insidious effects of alcohol or drugs get in the way," she says. "The management of eating disorders in colleges and universities presents special challenges in view of the disorganised aspects of student lifestyle."
Eating disorder policies are required to ensure that students get the specialist help they need.
The AUCC's conference in Edinburgh at the end of this month will highlight the psychological aspects of the learning environment.
It said that student counselling services were in demand more than ever.