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Eating Disorders & College

Going to college may be a time full of anticipation, excitement, and trepidation. It is a major life event and a new stage in adult life. It signifies the end of school going years and can be the start of becoming independent. For many people, the transition to college is a challenging time, and while some may experience the change with a few highs and lows, it can be particularly challenging and stressful for others. Leaving home, fending for yourself, adjusting to college life and routines, interacting with peers, meeting new and varied academic demands, can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed. It can be hard to find ways of coping with these new challenges in the absence of parental support, guidance, and family routines.

New standards and expectations relating to academic or practical and other tasks can be difficult to manage. There can be pressure to fit in to a new social environment quite quickly. This may revolve around food and alcohol and also introduce choices that may not have been as readily available as before. This can come at a time when some people feel preoccupied by, and self-conscious about, their appearance, particularly when engaging in social activities. It may be that an issue around eating behaviours, which developed during school years, becomes more acute in the absence of guidance from your family. On the other hand, for some, the change of environment can act as a trigger for new and stressful feelings which you may not know how to cope with. The move away from an existing support network can come at a time where a sense of anonymity, particularly in large groups and classes, can heighten feelings of isolation and create feelings of loneliness.

For those who may already have an eating disorder, or whose relationship with food has already become complicated, the new level of autonomy around planning meals and choosing foods can be a real challenge. Disordered eating thoughts and behaviours around food can intensify or the change of environment can itself be a trigger for new and stressful behaviours. This may affect those who may be vulnerable in other ways such as individuals with low self-esteem and poor body image. As with any change, the best way to manage your experience is to get as much information as you can about what lies ahead, and then to prepare as best you can for those changes.

Below you will find information on topics that frequently come up when thinking about college:

Understandably, eating disorders are often intensely private and secretive. Thinking about disclosing your experiences of an eating disorder, or that you are struggling and overwhelmed, can feel very daunting. You may consider doing it and then hesitate a few times. Whilst opening up to someone working in a support role in college is often stressful, it can be the first step in helping you to cope. The prospect of telling friends or housemates can be equally as daunting. It is your decision about who you confide in.

The new environment you are in need not mean you are disconnected from the support options available to you. If you are not at home here are some ideas about ways you can help yourself:

  • Make a regular ‘appointment’ to call home, maybe once a week.
  • If you are feeling low, you may find it comforting to visit home if that is possible.
  • Access the support network and structures you can identify around the college – this may include the college health service, student counselling service, students’ union welfare officer, a chaplain or other student support services.
  • Contact Bodywhys:
    Helpline: 01 2107906
    Email support:
  • Learn how to plan for and cook some of your favourite and straightforward recipes at home before you transition to college.
  • It is a good idea to talk to your parents, older siblings, family friends or anyone else you know who has attended college and who can share some of their experience with you.
  • Before you go, think about attending a college open day. Here, you can interact with current college students and staff.
  • Read the literature of the college you will be attending, so that you can familiarise yourself with the new environment as much as possible before you get there. Explore your college’s online resources and practical support options that are available, both academic and personal.
Whether you are in the process of recovery or not quite there yet, it is important to think through what will happen when you go to college, how you will cope and manage the new environment and routine and take specific precautions if you need to. If you have had a previous experience of an eating disorder, the move to college can be a challenge depending on how long you have been recovered.

Prepare in advance:

  • Speak with your parents, family, and support network about potential fears and how you can plan to handle them in advance.
  • If you are still in treatment or therapy, work with your therapist or health professional around the potential issues that may arise and around how you can cope.
  • If you think you have an issue but haven’t spoken to anyone, it might help for you to speak to someone before going to college, or check in with a college support network in the first term to try to help you cope with the change.

No matter how much you prepare, change is always difficult – the move to college can be challenging whether or not you have other issues to consider.

It can take time to adjust to the new structures and routines that college life demands. Moving away from home, living in a new town, finding new friends, having new experiences and additional responsibilities can all be a challenge. Even if you still live at home, you may find that your parents give you more freedom now or that they are not as aware of your day-to-day activities as they were when you were in school.

In the first few weeks and months, it may feel like everything is coming at you all at once. Give yourself time to adjust to the new demands and challenges. Set realistic goals based on what you need to manage within your course. If you are finding it difficult to manage your time, making a timetable to provide structure to your week can help you to balance and monitor the demands of your course. Don’t forget to include time for social activities, rest/breaks and head space away from academic work.

Try not to place unreasonable expectations on yourself. You are likely to be in college for a number of years. Try to approach and complete your work in manageable steps. Monitor your assignment deadlines and try to progress your work gradually rather than all at once. Try to break the academic year into small chunks, taking each term as a block of time. Managing your expectations about the non-academic aspects of college is also important.

College may be the first time you have sole responsibility for managing all aspects of your meals. This may mean having to purchase, plan and prepare your meals in a way that was not an issue before. Sometimes people feel under scrutiny when eating in public. It can be stressful to adjust to eating in front of other people because this is often linked to socialising and communicating with peers and friends.

In college, there can be an emphasis on convenience foods in an effort to save time or money. Trying new foods can bring about changes that you may not anticipate and which may be triggering for disordered and distorted thoughts and behaviours around food. This is why it is important to try and bring your home life routine and food schedules with you to college, so that you try in as much as you can, to manage your diet in a way that does not escalate into distress.

Understandably, it is not always possible to find food stores and shops that are open outside of normal business hours. You may find yourself changing your eating habits to something more regimented than might previously have been possible if you were living at home with your parents. Or, you may find that the exact opposite starts to happen and you lose all structure and schedule around meal times, going for long periods without eating, which itself can be triggering for behaviours such as binging and purging.

Helpful tips:

  • Try planning out your meals for the week and doing a weekly shop in a supermarket.
  • If you are sharing a house or apartment with friends, think about sharing mealtimes so you aren’t eating alone.
  • If you find it difficult to plan your meals, ask for help from home.

If you begin to see changes in your eating habits that worry you or you are not happy about, try to address this as early as possible by talking to someone.

The academic side of college life can be particularly difficult to adjust to because of your newfound independence. It will take time for you and your classmates to adapt to changed levels of supervision – give yourself this time to settle in and become familiar with the changing demands and pace of college life.

Understandably, students can feel significant pressure at various times during the academic year, for example, before and during the exam period, as they work towards a final year project or thesis, when undertaking group work and as deadlines build up. Students undertaking placements can feel under pressure to meet the demands and standards of their course and cope with long hours, travel requirements, interactions with others or the need to complete practical tasks. It is during those periods that it can be easy to neglect your own needs such as eating regularly and getting enough rest and sleep.

If you think you are developing, or have developed, eating disordered behaviours, you may notice yourself:

  • Having difficulty concentrating in class or whilst studying.
  • Substituting study for social activities and reducing social contact with other people.
  • Setting personal and academic standards that are extremely high and rigid.
  • Feeling trapped in a cycle.
  • Feeling preoccupied with what you are eating, what you weigh, and how you think you look to the outside world.
  • You may find yourself having mood swings, where you feel fine one minute and then panicky and out of control suddenly.
  • You may find yourself increasing exercise and sacrificing rest and social activities for exercise.

If you feel you are slipping behind in your work, it is really important to speak with someone about this. College staff understand stress, and they understand that college can be tough for everyone sometimes. It can help to:

  • Speak with your tutor, lecturer or course supervisor.
  • Clarify whether you are behind with assignments, and make arrangements to make up any missed work when you can.
  • Work with academic advisors towards ensuring you are meeting the minimum requirements to pass your course/year.
  • Communication can often be difficult – it is important to keep your tutor informed as to your progress.

If your eating disorder has become more of an issue, you may need to take some time away from college. If this is the case, you should work with your academic advisor to clarify your options around returning at a later stage to complete your studies.

Depending on the size of college, college life may leave you feeling lonely, disconnected and anonymous. In college it can seem that most social activities are centred around alcohol and if this is something new for you, this can be a challenge to cope with. This can be particularly difficult if you have an eating disorder and if you feel nervous about joining in, or unable to join in it can lead you to feel isolated and alone.

If you are feeling alone in this new environment, an eating disorder may increase this feeling of isolation, and make the process of adjusting more difficult. If you begin to feel yourself withdrawing from the social side of college, it is a good idea to look at what activities might suit you.

  • If you are more comfortable with the academic side of things, try spending time with classmates or your tutorial/project group.
  • If you have a particular interest/hobby, look for a club or society that matches your interest.

The aim should be to find your own comfort zone within your new environment.