Starting college will inevitably have a big effect on your diet. You may no longer be eating at as regular intervals as you would have at home, nor is it likely that what you’ll be eating will be quite as wholesome as what you would have been eating at home. However, the change in eating pattern as a result of dynamic changes in schedule and pressures should not affect you to the point where your health could be in jeopardy. Most importantly, falling into an eating disorder is something should be avoided at all costs.

The core to any eating disorder is that the sufferer defines her or himself in terms of their eating, weight and shape, to a degree that is disabling and distressing. For example, if you feel that you are only a worthwhile person if you are thin, but you see yourself as too heavy, then you are likely to feel less worthwhile or worthless. You are also likely to use problem behaviours, like starving yourself, vomiting and binge-eating, all of which are very risky.

There are three main types of eating disorder:

  • Bulimia nervosa - (normal weight or above, with binge-eating and purging)
  • Anorexia nervosa - (underweight, sometimes just restricting, and sometimes with bingeing and purging)
  • Binge eating disorder - (normal weight or above, with binge eating but efforts to lose weight)

Something that is important to bear in mind is that a person with an eating disorder will not necessarily be under or over weight. However, they will still be lacking incredibly important nutrients that are necessary for a healthy body and mind.

People experiencing an eating disorder share many of the following features:

  • They are likely to have dieted
  • Self-esteem is low
  • There is a marked over-concern with body shape, weight and size and obsession with food
  • Thinness is seen as a magical solution to problems, while weight gain is feared
  • The person affected is likely to have difficulty identifying and expressing their real needs
  • They may view their body as larger than it actually is (distorted body image)
  • They may have problems around control
  • They may have found it hard to talk about their feelings and to deal with conflict
  • They may be depressed and may become isolated
  • They may experience mood swings

It is difficult to pinpoint the causes of eating disorders in people. They may be rooted in troubles from childhood, abusive relationships, stress, anxiety, social pressure or low self-esteem. Really, it seems that there is no single cause which can explain why a person develops an eating disorder. It is usually a combination of factors (biological, psychological, familial and socio-cultural) that come together to create conditions in which an eating disorder is more likely to take hold. One may often develop gradually as a response to an upset in a person's life. This could be a traumatic event, a loss or major change in a person's life, bullying or critical comments about weight or shape. The distress that one feels will relate not only to the current upset, but also to a store of past upsets they have never been able to express. During one’s time at university, when many are trying to develop a sense of identity and security with themselves, it is not uncommon to fall into the opposite, a state of insecurity. It is a turbulent time, wrought with change and confusion, which can result in a feeling of insecurity until you can find yourself in a position that makes you comfortable. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads people to feel much more insecure about their bodies. This explains why eating disorders occur so often during adolescence when identity is an issue and the opinion of peers seems so important.

It may seem like there’s a sense of control in an eating disorder. In the chaotic, dynamic life of a student, you may feel as if you have no control over much that’s going on in your life. Having control over one’s weight may give a sense of empowerment. However, that sense of empowerment is not justified as soon you find that you are being controlled by its hold on you.

If several of the following behaviours or feelings are affecting you, you may be on the verge of or are already enduring an eating disorder . . .

  • Constantly restricting your food intake
  • Being very fixated about how many calories are in what you eat and drink
  • Skipping meals, fasting for a set period
  • Drinking instead of eating
  • Buying large quantities of food, hoarding food in preparation for a binge
  • Making yourself sick after eating
  • Using laxatives to purge
  • Excessive or compulsive exercise patterns such as exercising, even when injured, making sure you perform a certain number of repetitions or spend a certain amount of time exercising, or if you feel out of control because you cannot exercise.
  • Changing your food likes and dislikes (e.g. refusing to eat certain foods, claiming to dislike foods previously enjoyed)
  • Being stuck in certain behavioural patterns, such as insisting meals must always be at a certain time, only using a certain knife, only drinking out of a certain cup.
  • Avoiding all social situations involving food and making excuses to your friends/family to get out of meals
  • An increase in your focus of how you look, especially on your body shape and weight
  • Comparing yourself negatively to the airbrushed models in magazines, film stars
  • Checking on your body constantly by always looking in the mirror, by pinching waist or wrists, constantly weighing yourself
  • Social withdrawal or isolation from friends, including avoidance of previously enjoyed activities
  • Deceptive behaviour around food, such as secretly throwing food out, eating in secret (often only noticed due to many wrappers or food containers found in the bin), or lying about amount or type of food consumed
  • Eating very slowly (e.g. eating with teaspoons, cutting food into small pieces and eating one at a time, rearranging food on plate)
  • Continual denial of hunger
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Constant preoccupation with food or with activities relating to food
  • Extreme body dissatisfaction/ negative body image
  • Distorted body image (e.g. complaining of being/feeling/looking fat when actually a healthy weight or underweight)
  • Heightened sensitivity to comments or criticism about body shape or weight, eating or exercise habits
  • Depression or constant low mood
  • An increase in your anxiety
  • Feeling increasingly irritable
  • Feeling worthless and full of self –loathing
  • Feeling guilt and shame about your eating habits
  • Rigid ‘black-and-white’ thinking means everything is either amazing or terrible
  • You feel your life is ‘out of control’, and controlling what you eat is one way to maintain some control

Physical Signs

  • Sudden weight loss, or frequent changes in weight. You feel your weight goes up and down
  • Feeling cold most of the time
  • Loss or disturbance of menstrual periods (females)
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Always feeling very tired and lethargic
  • Feeling sore because of vomiting
  • Not sleeping well
  • Finding it harder to eat because your stomach has shrunk
  • Your body's metabolism slowing down
  • Constipation

Similarly, you may notice these things in friends or family members. It is crucial that you react if you notice this in yourself or another before it gets to the point where your health is at serious risk.

How do I rid myself of such a disorder or prevent myself from getting it in the first place?

Trying to ensure that you maintain a regular routine, even during times in life when it is hard to do so is important. Make sure that you find a decent chunk of time each day for meals instead of brief snacking. Also, don’t neglect breakfast. They weren’t lying when they said it’s the most important meal of the day. Eating a decent breakfast will set your digestive system up for the day and keep your body in good working order. If you find it impossible to eat in the morning, sit at the kitchen table drinking a glass of water or a cup of tea for a few minutes and then just try. It may be difficult at first, but once you have done it a few times routinely, you will get into the habit quickly.

Try to be honest about what you are or are not eating, both with yourself and with other people. Most of all, be more compassionate to yourself. You really don’t always have to be achieving things all the time. Try to be kind to your body, it’s the only one you’ll ever have, don’t punish it.

Don’t weigh yourself more than once a week and don’t leave a room to look in mirror and check your size. Absolutely no one’s body is perfect and, if you spend too much time scrutinizing your own appearance, then you will only invent things to criticise in yourself. Try and locate the parts of your body that you find beautiful. Be kind to yourself, be generous.

If you or a friend or family member is suffering for anorexia, bulimia or another eating disorder, then it is almost always advisable to seek some degree of professional help. An eating disorder is incredibly difficult to tackle alone, but there are many means by which it can be approached. Remember, you should never feel shame in acknowledging that you are going through an eating disorder or feel that you cannot talk about it. There is no judgement given by those there to provide professional help, there is only support and motivation to overcome it.