College is an exciting time and a time full of a lot of changes. Some of these changes can feed into eating disorder behaviors. Here’s how relationships play a role.
Relationships, Eating Disorder Symptoms, & College
Starting college is a big adjustment for college-aged students . Think about it: there are so many changes happening at one time! For students with eating disorders or those who are at risk for developing an eating disorder, this adjustment to university can lead to increased eating disorder symptoms . Understanding this risk can help people plan ahead on how to support themselves or their loved ones during this transition.
Stressors of Adjusting to College & How This Might Influence Eating Disorder Symptoms
It’s important to understand how the stressors of college life can influence someone’s relationship with food and their body. Researchers recently studied different aspects of college life that could trigger students to relapse or develop eating disorder symptoms. One thing that researchers discovered is that the role of social belonging plays a role in the development of eating disorder symptoms .
While college can be an exciting time, it often comes with big changes in someone’s social circle. Students are no longer going to school with the same people and they may not be living at home anymore. They’re basically thrown into a new group of people where they have to make new relationships.
Research shows that the quality of our relationships impacts mental health . So it makes sense that when someone’s relationships drastically change, that there might be changes in their mental health as well.
Identity & Community & How This Intersects with Mental Health
Researchers who focus on the impact of relationships discovered that our relationships can actually influence the way we view ourselves . This means that our relationships can shift our identity. College is often a time of self-exploration and figuring out who you are. This being said, it makes sense that a change in someone’s social group could really impact how they feel about themselves .
This is especially true when it comes to feeling like you belong. Belonging is usually felt in groups, such as within families or close groups of friends . For example, high school students may find a sense of belonging in their soccer team. If they go to college and aren’t playing soccer anymore, that aspect of their identity is basically stripped away.
This sense of belonging can help people feel more supported . For people with eating disorders, this is really important. Feeling unsupported is a common thing that feeds into developing an eating disorder .
Warning Signs of Eating Disorders in College Students
Eating disorders can impact someone’s emotions, physical health, and behavior . So when looking for warning signs, it can be helpful to look at these three different aspects of someone’s life. There are many different symptoms of eating disorders, but the ones that might be noticeable to other people include:
- Significant worry with gaining weight
- Increased focus on weight loss, dieting, or food
- Avoiding eating with other people
- Restricting entire food groups, such as not eating sugar or carbs
- Excessively checking their appearance in the mirror or other body-checking techniques, such as measuring their body with their hands
- Mood swings
- Noticeable changes in weight, whether an increase or decrease
- Sleep problems
- Difficulty concentrating
- Excessive exercise
- Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
- Laxative use
- Calluses on the back of hands from vomiting
- Stealing food
- Eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time 
It’s important to remember that people with eating disorders likely have multiple warning signs. However, if you suspect something, it’s best to say something. If you are worried about someone you believe might be struggling with disordered eating, you can bring it up.
That conversation might sound something like, “Hey, I notice that you’re worried more about your weight lately, and I feel concerned. I’m here if you need to talk.” Expressing your concern increases the chances that they will feel supported rather than attacked. Even if they deny having a problem, it’s helpful to know they can turn to you if they are struggling.
How to Support College Students with Eating Disorders or High-Risk Students
Understanding the importance of belonging and identity for people diagnosed with an eating disorder or who are high-risk for developing disordered behaviors can help loved ones, mental health professionals, and university staff understand how to support students. It’s possible that supporting students in building relationships or their support networks could help prevent disordered eating symptoms.
Resources: Foran, A., Muldoon, O.T., & O’Donnell, A.T. (2021). Identity processes and eating disorder symptoms during university adjustment: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9(44), 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-021-00399-4  National Eating Disorders Association. (2018). Warning signs and symptoms. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms
About the Author:
Samantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published June 1, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on June 1, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC