Content Warning: This piece contains mentions of disordered eating/eating disorders.
Starting college can introduce a lot of new stressors in our daily lives, both expected and unexpected. You might be ready for long nights of studying, trouble making friends, or bouts of homesickness. However, what you might not expect is the impact that living on college campuses can have on your relationship with food, and the effects it can have, including disordered eating and eating disorders.
I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease when I was 12 years old. It forever changed my relationship with food because I could no longer eat gluten. I had to check the labels of everything I ate. I am also the only one in my family who has this disease and the only one who had to be on a gluten-free diet, which was very isolating. As the years went by, I adapted. It became second nature, and I had safe food items and restaurants I could go to. There even became more options available in stores. I felt stable in my relationship with food, thanks to the work I did to create healthy and safe habits. However, once I began college, many of the food issues I had worked through started to reappear.
When I first toured the college I ended up attending, they assured me that my food needs would be met. The student orientation events went well, and I had food made especially for me. But on the first day of classes, I went to the dining hall and found that there were little to no options and the staff was not trained on how to handle allergens. As a result of repeated incidents and close calls of being given contaminated food, I did what many allergen students do and stopped going to the dining hall. I stopped trying to find something to eat and skipped meals altogether because I could not keep dealing with the stress and anxiety of accidentally eating something I couldn’t.
This led to a rapid decline in my mental health. Food is fuel for the body and is essential when you’re a busy college student. I stopped leaving my dorm and became depressed. I also developed intense anxiety about food and eating in general. I felt increasingly isolated and wasn’t sure where to start in terms of finding safe choices. It felt like no one else was experiencing what I was — now, I know that isn’t true.
Other students have also suffered from the current setup of dining halls in colleges nationwide, and are offering solutions to administrations on how they can better support the variety of food-related needs that exist on college campuses. Eating disorders typically see their start in college-age young adults, and the rate at which college students suffer from eating disorders is on the rise. We need to take action, not just individually to protect ourselves, but on a systematic level to ensure the health and safety of all college students when it comes to food.
If you’re currently suffering from a form of disordered eating, an eating disorder, or are noticing negative changes in your relationship with food, the most important advice I can give you is to seek help. You are not alone in these struggles, and your RA, college counseling center, or an outside therapist can all help you either seek accommodations or, in the case of a counselor or therapist, work on your relationship with food. I carried unhealthy thoughts about food with me for a long time, even after I began doing my own grocery shopping, but with the help of friends and my therapist, I was able to create a better relationship with food. I realized how important it is to nourish your body even when you don’t feel like you can or should. I still have bad days because healing and recovery are not linear but I have supportive people in my life who help and encourage me.
College campuses need to be aware of the prevalence of disordered eating and prioritize the unique needs of students when it comes to food in the operation of dining halls and the creation of meal plans. Students cannot succeed academically if they are chronically hungry. Allergen-friendly options are not a want, but a need at college. Many colleges require students to have a dining plan but do not provide adequate options. The impacts of this leave a long-lasting impression on students.