eating disorder
You may have developed an eating disorder before you even reached high school, but no matter what age you are, it's never too late to seek help. (Illustration by Rachel Glucksman, Rhode Island School of Design)

Eating disorders are much more common than many people know or choose to believe, and these disorders become especially prevalent when a young person goes to college. A lot of the time, people develop eating disorders at a young age and don’t get a handle on them before going off to higher education. The recovery from an eating disorder is a long road, and usually not a linear one. If you’ve developed an eating disorder at a young age, you may still be recovering from it.

Development of Eating Disorders 

The process in which you develop an eating disorder is not always obvious; it happens over time and is about having a sense of control. If you feel out of control in your life and have difficulty coping with unpleasant or overwhelming emotions and situations, you’re more at risk for developing an eating disorder.

Eating disorders develop when the need to feel control over a stressful environment is channeled through food restriction, overexercise and an unhealthy focus on body weight. It can start with keeping yourself from eating fats, dairy, sugar, etc. and leads to more serious manifestations like abusing laxatives, purging, over-restricting your diet and binging.

Of course, not everyone who goes on a diet will automatically get an eating disorder. They’re caused by a complex combination of genetic, psychological, cultural and environmental factors. The best way to determine if you have an eating disorder is to gauge how much your behavior around eating impacts areas of your life.

Will you not go to a party because you’re worried about eating something that will affect your weight? Are you afraid to go out with your friends because they’ll judge your body, or just because you don’t want to miss a day of exercise? The more you are withdrawing from everyday activities because of anxieties about eating and your weight, the more cause there is for concern.

Eating disorders are a legitimate illness, not character flaws or choices. No one chooses to have an eating disorder, and it’s also impossible to diagnose people just by looking at them since those with the illness may not always be underweight.

Though 18-21 is the age when full blown eating disorders usually begin, they can start much younger. Even children younger than 12 can develop eating disorders, and these habits will often follow them all the way to adulthood. It’s important to remember that without proper treatment, it’s extremely difficult for someone to recover from an eating disorder on their own, as they will typically keep relapsing.

Difficulty Managing Eating Disorders in College

Believe it or not, 40% of incoming freshmen already have some sort of struggle with disordered eating when they enter college, and that struggle only becomes more difficult with college life. A 2011 study found that 25% of men and 32% of women have an eating disorder on university campuses, and the number is rising. College is an environment where disordered eating habits are likely to arise, resurface or worsen for many young men and women.

Kids who struggled with perfectionism, lack of control and shame about their bodies before college will find those struggles much more difficult to manage in college. It’s not only an increased workload and the disruption of accustomed schedules that wreak havoc on students’ eating habits, it’s also the freedom of the dining hall and a whole new set of unpredictable peers. All these factors play a role in how an eating disorder can go from moderate to severe in college.

The most common eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Sometimes a person might even have several of these disorders resulting from a vicious cycle of restricting, binging and then throwing up. An eating disorder is diagnosed when certain behaviors are sustained over time, becoming dangerous and unmanageable.

A college setting exacerbates the symptoms of eating disorders, as the freedom to eat whenever and whatever you want is not good for students susceptible to or already suffering from disordered eating. The other problem is the social aspect of bulimia and binge eating. College students use their peers as role models for behavior, so if a student sees their roommates or friends engaging in binging or purging, it can be all too easy to follow suit.

Why Recovery Is Such a Long Road

It would be great if you could acknowledge you have an eating disorder, take the necessary steps to get better and never have another disordered thought again, but recovery is not that easy. Once you acknowledge you have a problem with your eating habits and body image, you need to commit to getting better and be willing to work at it.

That’s not to say you should think, “Why bother recovering, then?” I can assure you making the conscious choice to recover from an eating disorder is the best choice you could ever make. Eating disorders take over your life in the most dangerous of ways because they are serious illnesses, and you deserve to take your life back. Just know it’s near impossible to recover on your own, so you’ll need some help.

The first step to recovery is admitting you even have a problem. If your eating habits and body image are impacting many other areas of your life, then that’s probably a big sign that you do need help.

The next step is being open to seeking out professional help. Most colleges have counseling centers where therapy is included with your tuition, so your own campus would be a good place to start. It’s also important to surround yourself with supportive people who are not partaking in unhealthy eating behaviors and can therefore guide you through recovery.

The main point of recovery is that it is not an easy road. You will most definitely relapse, and that’s okay. As long as you continue to seek help when you fall back into your disordered habits, relapse is completely normal. Disordered thoughts do not simply go away; it takes time and communication with a professional to foster a healthy relationship with food and your body again.

As someone who developed multiple eating disorders at a young age and had not recovered from them when I went to college, I understand firsthand how long and challenging recovery can be. It’s obviously different for each individual, but recovering from an eating disorder can take three to seven years, or longer. The good news is that most people who seek treatment either recover completely or at least make significant progress. I’m still recovering from my eating disorders but can confidently say I’m much healthier and nowhere near as sick as I was when I was a freshman in college.

If at any point you recognize that you have an eating disorder or just an unhealthy relationship with food and body image, it’s never too late to seek help. Though recovery may be a longer and more difficult journey than most of us would like, it’s still worth it. You deserve a life that’s not dictated by disordered thoughts and unhealthy eating habits.

The sooner you get treatment and get on the road to recovery, the sooner you can live healthier and much more functionally. Choosing to recover from my eating disorders and working at recovery every day was one of the best choices I’ve made, and I guarantee it will be the same for you.

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