The transition from high school to college is an exciting time. It is an opportunity to make new friends, develop new interests, and, often for the first time, experience more freedom! But, as students soon find out, with this newfound freedom comes great responsibility, including food choices. For many students, college is the first time that they have to make decisions about what and when they eat without any help from a parent. This can cause anxiety for some students, particularly regarding weight gain and the “Freshman 15.” Add the stress schoolwork, and what sometimes results is disordered eating.
According to registered dietitian Marci Anderson, disordered eating is “engaging in any behaviors that ignore the body’s internal mechanisms of hunger and fullness in an attempt to change body weight, shape, and size.” Those with disordered eating often experience an unhealthy preoccupation with every calorie or morsel of food that enters their body. It is often hard to identify because it encompasses a wide range of behaviors that may not fit the classic definitions of diagnosable eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Almost always characterized by extreme eating and exercise habits, common signs to look out for, as specified by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, include:
- Chronic yo-yo dieting
- Frequent weight fluctuations
- Extremely rigid and unhealthy food and exercise regime
- Feelings of guilt and shame when unable to maintain food and exercise habits
- Pre-occupation with food, body and exercise that causes distress and has a negative impact on quality of life
- Compulsive or emotionally-driven eating
- Use of compensatory measures, such as exercise, food restriction, fasting and even purging or laxative use to “make up for” food consumed
College students are prone to a specific subset of behaviors, Anderson says, particularly “skipping meals in order to save calories for binge drinking, dieting, and taking part in cleanses or detox diets.” Now, you may be asking yourself, “why dieting?” Marci responds that dieting is considered a form of disordered eating because “it disregards the body’s natural ability to self-regulate” causing “distrust between oneself and one’s body” that often leads to “a yo-yo pattern of restriction and overeating or binging.”
Although this way of eating may seem harmless, it has many mental, social, and physical consequences. Often, people fail to adhere to the strict diets and high body standards that they set for themselves, which can cause stress, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. These erratic eating patterns, such as yo-yo dieting, can promote rapid fluctuations in weight that frequently cause the person to gain more than their original weight. Furthermore, in extreme cases, disordered eating can unintentionally lead to gastrointestinal problems, fluid and electrolyte imbalances, and full-blown eating disorders.
Unfortunately, disordered eating has become so prevalent in today’s society that, Anderson asserts, it is normalized. So much so, that these behaviors are culturally “accepted and even desirable.” Social media is one of the largest culprits when it comes to spreading these body ideals. So what can you do? If you know you are or think you might be struggling with disordered eating consult a registered dietitian! If an RD is not an option, another great place to look for help is your school’s health or counseling center. Many campuses have trained staff available to help student because this problem is so rampant on campuses. Seek professionals who will help you to use non-dieting approaches, such as mindful or intuitive eating, to maintain a healthy weight and enjoy your college years!