Until a student goes to college, his or her eating habits typically follow those of their family. With a newfound sense of freedom, some people learn that they prefer to eat more whole foods, while others gravitate towards more processed options. A shift in dietary habits in college is nothing out of the ordinary, but it is important to keep an eye out for disordered behaviors. For students with celiac disease, this becomes especially problematic since they already have to avoid particular foods; research indicates a positive association between celiac disease and anorexia nervosa. While some warning signs may appear harmless on the surface, disordered eating patterns may start innocently but turn deadly. Celiac or not, the behaviors described below may indicate an unhealthy relationship with food. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I have observed these tendencies in my friends and I as we struggled to find our sense of balance in college. This should not serve as a diagnostic tool, and it is solely based on firsthand experiences.
Preoccupation with the Freshman 15
Media portrayals often only show the side of disordered eating that manifests itself as a hyper fixation on losing weight. However, motivations behind abnormal eating behaviors take many shapes and forms. I have seen students develop an eating disorder out of the fear of gaining the infamous “Freshman 15”. Fear of weight gain often results in the same destructive behaviors as an obsession with weight loss. Over time, attempts to control one’s weight may slowly fade into something not only detrimental but potentially deadly.
Changing eating habits in college can sometimes result in weight fluctuations. By itself, a shift in weight does not necessarily indicate an eating disorder. It is extremely important, however, to not comment on another person’s change in weight if you observe it; you never know how someone may receive your observation. If a student has gained weight, your words could damage their body image. If the student intentionally lost weight, your comment may validate their efforts and fuel them to continue to lose weight. On the other hand, if the student did not try to lose weight, you may make them fear the potential of gaining their weight back. While each scenario looks different, any of these reactions could spiral into an unhealthy relationship with food and/or exercise. A weight-centric comment, even if well-meaning, fuels society’s narrative that our weight plays a defining role in our lives, but in reality, an individual’s external appearance is the least interesting thing about him or her.
Extremely Healthy Eating
People often think of disordered eating in a black and white way, but in reality, you do not have to have a clinical diagnosis of bulimia or anorexia to need help. Rather than restricting calories, individuals may restrict particular foods, food groups, or macronutrients. Of course, individuals with celiac disease or severe food allergies must eliminate single ingredients from their diets. However, the continued elimination of foods and the development of food rules may be a cause for concern.
The refusal to eat “unhealthy” or “bad” foods may indicate an overly restrictive mentality; students can have preferences but moralizing food takes it a step too far. Students should not feel guilty after eating something they deem “bad”, nor should they develop “fear foods”. Life is so much better when you develop the freedom to eat and move on. Food fuels us to pursue our passions; do not waste any of that valuable energy by micromanaging every facet of your diet.
Thinking About Food
In the face of starvation, our brains crave food. Constant food thoughts can serve as a sign of mental hunger. This may be difficult to differentiate between celiac behaviors, but obsessively looking at restaurant menus in advance may indicate a problem. The key difference between scoping out gluten-free options before going to a restaurant and engaging in a disordered behavior is if the individual further limits themselves to the “healthiest” items on the menu or never intends to visit the restaurant. Also, looking at recipes all the time may indicate food fixation resulting from disordered eating behaviors. The individual may never actually make the recipes, or they may make the recipes but refuse to eat them because they do not fit within their self-inflicted food rules.
Compulsive or Compensatory Exercise
Active students may struggle with the sedentary lifestyle of sitting in a library all day. Humans naturally crave movement, but exercising solely to burn calories sucks the enjoyment out of it. Physical activity can serve as a wonderful form of stress relief, but it far too often serves as a source of stress itself. Compulsive exercise often coexists with eating disorders and disordered eating. Some red flags of compulsive exercise I have observed in my past self and others include refusing to take rest days, skipping social events to go to the gym, only doing high-intensity exercise or cardio, and going to the gym multiple times each day. Exercise should serve as an addition to your life, not a compensatory behavior.
As humans, we all struggle sometimes, and there is no shame in being human. Seeking help does not indicate weakness, but instead shows the strength to fight your battles head-on. It is important to seek help from a healthcare professional if you are concerned with the eating behaviors of yourself or a loved one. If you believe that you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, you can reach the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at (800) 931-2237. More information can be found online at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Note: When I speak of restriction, I am not referring to the elimination of gluten from one’s diet. A strict gluten-free diet is necessary for individuals with celiac disease. When properly executed, a gluten-free diet should not feel restrictive; nearly all foods have some version of a gluten-free alternative. An example of restriction while following a gluten-free diet is the outright refusal to eat gluten-free treats because of the calories or “unhealthy” ingredients.