I began my eating disorder recovery my freshman year of college. Now a junior, I’ve been in recovery the entirety of my college experience so far. Navigating an eating disorder as a college student has certainly been challenging. However, it has also opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of eating disorders. As well as disordered eating among my peers.
Unfortunately, the college environment is very conducive to the development of eating disorders. Students may experience intense peer pressure as they are surrounded by people their age. This, coupled with the fact that for most students, college is the first time they have full autonomy over their diet, creates a “perfect storm” for eating disorders.
The Child Mind Institute reports that between 10-20% of women, and 4-10% of men, in college suffer from an eating disorder. The most common of which are anorexia and bulimia. However, although the rates of eating disorders on college campuses are increasing, there is a severe lack of eating disorder counseling and resources among these colleges.
In a recent study done, The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) found that while roughly 90% of college students believe eating disorder screenings are important for colleges to offer, only about 20% of colleges offer year-round screenings for their students. Ultimately, the study’s authors concluded that “greater funding and resources are needed to educate, screen, refer, and treat college students who struggle with disorders or disordered eating.”
As a college student who’s currently in recovery for an eating disorder themself, I find myself more aware of the eating disorder and disordered eating behaviors among my peers. Below I’ve listed the most common ED/DE behaviors I’ve witnessed. Along with the factors that enable these behaviors. Followed by several actionable steps that can be taken to help combat these negative patterns.
Two of the most common phrases I hear from my peers are, “this is the first thing I’ve eaten all day,” and “I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” meanwhile it’s six o’clock at night. Often, these statements are said with a smile or laugh, almost as if not eating is a joke or a feat to be proud of. In reality, skipping meals has many negative physical and psychological consequences, including a decrease in metabolism, increased mood swings, and even increased overeating or binging episodes.
To prevent these issues from arising, it’s best to try not to skip any meals, but sometimes it just can’t be avoided. In this case, any meals missed should be supplemented with additional snacks. Preferably with caloric intakes that roughly equal that of regular meals. However, if you find yourself caught in a pattern of regularly skipping meals, I recommend meeting with a licensed therapist or eating disorder dietitian to try to address the root of the issue.
Obsessing over eating healthy
Unfortunately, I’ve found that there is a pervasive, almost cultural, obsession with dieting or “eating healthy” among college students. I’ve known girls who eat nothing but salads each meal. I’ve seen guys eat 3 chicken breasts with nothing else but a side of ketchup. Oftentimes, obsessions with healthy eating don’t reflect any genuine health concerns. Rather a feeling of anxiety or lack of control. Diet is a relatively easy aspect of life for people to control. For people under stress, like college students, it’s an easy way to regain a sense of control over their situation. However, it’s important that food not be used as a tool for stress relief. Instead, students who feel overwhelmed should try to find a more positive outlet for their stress. For example, journaling, meditating, or exercise (so long as they don’t over-exercise) are positive outlets.
If you, or someone you know, uses food as a way to regulate their emotions, it may be a sign that they should get in contact with a therapist and/or dietitian who specialize in eating disorders. These professionals can help work through their feelings of stress and develop a more positive relationship with food.
In addition to being a student, I also work at my school’s recreation center/gym. As a result, I’ve witnessed a lot of overexercising. I’ve seen students workout multiple times a day. Or spend hours doing cardio with no break. There have even been several instances of students pushing themselves so hard that they throw up or pass out from low blood sugar. It’s important to listen to your body. If you feel that you’re pushing yourself to the edge, that’s a sign you should probably slow down, not speed up.
Remember that exercise is meant to make you feel stronger, not weaker. Rather than running on the treadmill for 2 hours, try going on a walk with some friends. Or maybe instead of getting that second lift in, take a nap and give your muscles some rest. If you find yourself constantly needing to exercise, or the thought of not exercising causes anxiety, I also recommend finding a therapist or eating disorder dietitian who can help you work through these feelings.
Poor dining services
Unfortunately, my school’s dining halls are not great. There’s a very limited amount of options available, nevermind “nutritious” options. What was available was often poorly seasoned, overcooked, or undercooked. I’ve known many people who have gotten food poisoning from the dining halls. Even I got food poisoning this past year. In talking to friends at other colleges, I’ve learned that this is not an isolated issue. Many schools have poor dining services.
For me, this put a strain on my eating disorder recovery. It made it difficult to get enough calories. As a result, my recovery team recommended that I compensate for this caloric loss by eating bigger breakfasts and snacking more. Which can apply to any college student who’s struggling with dining hall food. They also recommended that I meet with my campus dietitian and make a list of meals that I found fulfilling. Therefore, I had several “backup” meals that I could turn to if I was struggling to find something new.
Too little or too much free time
Everyone’s college experience is different. For some, being a student is a full time job, that leaves little time for self-care. Whereas for others, college is a breeze and they have nothing but time on their hands. I’ve found that the students with the least amount of free time are typically the most stressed, and are more likely to skip meals. Although it may seem like skipping meals is an easy way to save time, it’s not worth the negative consequences. If time is a real concern, it may help to schedule meal times or find “to-go” meals. Such as wraps.
Conversely, the students who have an excess amount of free time are able to ruminate about their physique or diet. Which can lead to obsessive eating and overexercising. For these students, staying busy could curb their ruminating thoughts by helping them focus on other things. The trick is to choose activities that are productive or enjoyable. Such as joining a club or starting a new hobby that will help destress, rather than stress you out. However, if you’re still struggling with eating, binging, overexercising, or ruminating over food, it may be time to reach out to a therapist and/or dietitian who specialize in eating disorder recovery.
In closing, I want to emphasize that eating disorders and disordered eating manifests in a wide range of observable, and non-observable behaviors or patterns. In this blog, I only discussed a few of these behaviors, all of which I have witnessed or experienced personally. I also want to clarify that there are many college students who have a healthy, positive relationship with food. However, there is also an increasing number of students who struggle with eating disorders and disordered eating. These are both very serious, and possibly life-threatening issues that should be treated by licensed professionals who specialize in ED/DE.
For more information, contact us at Courage to Nourish today. Our eating disorder dietitian nutritionists are located in College Park, Maryland. and Columbia, Maryland. As well as Alexandria, Virginia. Colorado. and Pennsylvania. Read more about the Courage to Nourish team. We’d love to support you in eating disorder recovery.
Leslie Bredehoeft, Student Intern
Hi! I’m Leslie Bredehoeft and I’m an intern at Courage to Nourish. I am currently an undergraduate student at the College of William & Mary, majoring in Kinesiology with a concentration in Human Nutrition and minoring in English. After receiving my B.S. I plan to go to grad school to pursue an M.S. degree and become a registered dietitian. I, myself am in eating disorder recovery, which has not only opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of eating disorders, but also to the epidemic of nutrition misinformation within society. As a registered dietitian, I hope to educate my clients on the science of nutrition and help better their relationship with food.