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Inspiration for healthy eating is everywhere these days—we’re finding more veggie options in the dining halls, mouthwatering (yet healthy) recipes on Instagram, and better snacks in vending machines.

For the most part, this is great—healthy eating goals are a good thing. But they can also go too far. This is especially true in college and university, where eating can become a coping mechanism for dealing with the added stress of new classes, thesis papers, and exams. Using food to cope is more common than you might think—almost three quarters (73 percent) of Canadian respondents in a recent Student Health 101 survey said they’ve used food to exert more control over their lives or feel better emotionally.

When good eating goes bad

The line between healthy eating habits and concerning behaviours can be a fine one. “Normal” eating doesn’t use food to cope with emotions. Some days you eat until you’re full; other days, if you’re very busy, you don’t eat enough, says Marriam Abou-El-Haj, a Counsellor for Dalhousie Student Health and Wellness at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. There are more “one-offs” and you’re not overly conscious of it.

Eating disorders and disordered eating are not the same thing

Eating disorders are extreme eating behaviours that fall into categories such as anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Disordered eating can be any unhealthy eating habit or attitude about eating—such as compulsive eating, intense focus on weight or body image, or exercising like crazy to compensate for a big meal—and can be a precursor to having an eating disorder. However, not everyone with disordered eating habits will develop an eating disorder. These patterns can be exhibited by both men and women and by people of all ages, backgrounds, and identities.

With disordered eating, Abou-El-Haj says food becomes associated with emotion. It starts to become a pattern. This can happen when you’re busier, more stressed, have less time, etc. Meanwhile, with eating disorders themselves, there’s an underlying mental health issue. Self-esteem is often tied up in food and weight. Eating disorders are looked at from an addiction perspective as an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with emotions.

What to know about disordered eating

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People with eating disorders and disordered eating habits come in all shapes and sizes.

You don’t have to be underweight—many individuals with eating disorders or disordered eating patterns are of average weight or are overweight.

Disordered eating habits and eating disorders are often coping mechanisms.

It’s not vanity that drives people with eating disorders to follow extreme diets and obsess over their bodies; rather, it’s an attempt to deal with feelings of shame, anxiety, and powerlessness.

Eating disorders and disordered eating should be taken seriously.

All eating disorders can lead to irreversible and even life-threatening health problems, such as heart disease, bone loss, stunted growth, infertility, and kidney damage.

At university, students are typically faced with many challenges, some rewarding, and others that can give new meaning to the word “stress.” There are many productive ways to deal with pressure and change, but there’s also a fine line between being healthy and going too far. What if your strategies, like developing extreme eating and exercise patterns, are causing more harm than good?

Here’s how I used to deal with the pressure I felt: I limited the amount of calories I consumed and worked out incessantly.

When I moved away from my family support system to begin university, I had a strong desire to control one or two aspects of my life. With a schedule full of difficult classes, wanting to connect with new friends, and a lack of self-confidence, I was striving to feel “together” and successful in whatever way I could. So I began cutting calories and devoting myself to a one-hour workout each day. Although I really didn’t need to shed any pounds, I felt a sense of accomplishment—particularly because I believed I was dieting in a healthy, admirable way. 

By the time my second year began, there was a noticeable shift in my priorities. Whereas academics used to dominate my schedule, my new routine revolved around working out, looking for health tips, and planning my meals. My social life began to drop off as I turned down offers to eat with friends.

Though my relationship with food felt like an experience that other people wouldn’t understand, I later learned that my behaviours fell under a large umbrella of disordered eating patterns.

While my eating disorder began with restricting calories and devoting myself to a rigid exercise routine, it’s not uncommon for a person to have detrimental eating habits and a distorted body image without full-blown symptoms of an eating disorder. These patterns can be exhibited by both men and women and by people of all ages, backgrounds, and identities.

—Kendra Lovegrove

Identifying unhealthy eating habits

According to the National College Health Assessment, Spring 2016 Canadian survey, 34 percent of men and 57 percent of women in college are trying to lose weight—even though only 31 and 38 percent of men and women respectively indicated they were overweight.

So how do you know when a weight loss goal or increased focus on health becomes unhealthy?

“A lot of diet talk is socially acceptable. Therefore, it’s not as easy to pick out when someone is struggling. A lot of people bond over beating their bodies up or talking about food,” says Abou-El-Haj.

Common signs of disordered eating include:

  • Rigidity around timing or number of meals and snacks
  • Excluding certain food groups or ingredients because you perceive they’ll make you gain weight
  • Regularly consuming excessive amounts of a food or beverage
  • Categorizing food as either “good” or “bad,” “healthy” or “unhealthy”
  • Avoiding situations that involve eating around others
  • Increased weight monitoring
  • Overindulging or feeling a lack of control when eating (on a regular basis)
  • Using diet pills, diuretics, laxatives, or excessive caffeine
  • Exercising excessively to “make up for” eating

You might identify yourself doing any of these, or notice a friend or peer behaving in a way that concerns you.

What factors fuel disordered eating?

Troubled eating habits are rarely stand-alone issues—often, they’re not even about food. “Eating disorders are often associated with trauma and other mental illnesses, and the disordered eating can be a coping mechanism to try to gain some semblance of control over one’s life. It’s important to stress that eating disorders are not only about food,” says Christine McPhail, Program Coordinator at Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre in Ontario. There are two main driving factors, according to the experts:

1. Coping and control

"Eating disorders are not only about food." -Christine McPhail“Individuals who’re struggling with their identity and self-image can be at risk, as well as those who have experienced trauma,” says Sophie Martin and Stephanie Lien, both Direct Client Support Workers at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Ontario. “Eating disorders can also be a product of how one has been raised and taught to behave. Usually, an eating disorder signals that the person has deep emotional difficulties that they’re unable to face or resolve.”

2. Unhealthy body image

The media, including social media, doesn’t exactly help our body image. “Individuals may be overly concerned with their weight, size, or shape,” Martin and Lien say. “They may also be concerned about being judged by others based on their appearance and behaviours.”

Messages about body image start working their way into your brain before you even realize—media influence shapes ideas about our bodies as early as elementary school. Sixty-nine percent of elementary school girls who read magazines said the pictures influenced what they thought was an ideal body shape, and 47 percent said the pictures made them want to lose weight, according to a 2010 study published in Pediatrics.

“Social media and the media make it evident that the ideal body type is thin, blemish free, dressed well; men are muscular, females wear makeup, etc. Even though there are body positivity campaigns, comment sections are generally filled with demeaning remarks. Paparazzi photos of celebrities not looking their ‘best’ are often shared by the media with commentary that makes it clear that it’s not desirable. The overwhelming scrutiny of people’s bodies makes it nearly impossible to not be self-conscious of one’s own body,” says Sarah G.*, a fifth-year undergraduate student at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Some research suggests that an individual’s online presence and ‘selfies’ are increasing pressure for adolescents to be thin and perfectly put together,” says Colleen Conroy Amato, Counsellor at Ryerson University in Ontario. In one small 2014 study, 84 women were asked to either use Facebook or another site for 20 minutes—researchers found that more frequent Facebook use was associated with anxiety over weight concerns and greater disordered eating behaviours.

  • Bullying: “I was bullied in middle school, which I’ve realized largely contributed to, and was most likely the main cause of, my developing an eating disorder,” says Ashlin P.*, a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts.
  • Anxiety and depression: “Food helps to fill the emptiness. It’s more of a comfort thing so I end up eating way too much sometimes and it’s always food that’s not healthy,” says Jane K.*, a fourth-year undergraduate student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia.
  • Sports: According to data from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), a third of US male athletes and two-thirds of female athletes engage in disordered eating behaviours. “When it comes to athletes, there are a lot of heavy expectations on them,” says Abou-El-Haj, especially in programs where they need to meet a certain weight (e.g., wrestling). “They’re role models on campus and have really busy schedules. Coaches may not catch a lot of the warning signs of disordered eating.”
  • Major life transitions and stressors: Think parents getting divorced, breakups, traumatic experiences, or simply transitioning to post-secondary. You have deadlines, every day is different, and it’s often the first time people are on their own feeding themselves.
  • Lifestyle changes: In residence, there’s access to dining halls, which are normally all-you-can-eat. Sometimes it’s hard to make the healthiest choices. Plus, most students are on a budget and eating requires money and time, so it can be low on the priority list.

Building healthier eating habits

Amato says that addressing body image or eating problems early on offers the best chance for working through these issues and becoming healthy again. Don’t wait until the situation is so severe that a life is in danger.

How to help yourself

Identifying disordered eating behaviours in yourself can be particularly tricky—you have to be informed about the warning signs and then totally honest in evaluating yourself. “If the way you eat and think about food interferes with your life and keeps you from enjoying life and moving forward, this may be disordered eating,” Amato says.

  • Explore the intentions behind your eating patterns to illuminate emotional concerns.
  • Consider societal, academic, and personal pressures that impact how you feel about your body. “Seek support from a non-diet dietitian who can support you in becoming in tune with your innate hunger and fullness cues and food preferences, while not trying to manipulate your weight or shape,” says McPhail.
  • If you’re concerned, talk with a professional. You can call the hotline at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre at 1-866-NEDIC-20 (1-866-633-4220).

Squirrel looking into a heart mirror

How to help a friend

If you see shifts in a friend’s behaviour or the way they speak, pay attention. Abou-El-Haj says to look at patterns of behaviour (not just “one-offs”) and a hyperfocus on appearance, weight, food, calories, and/or exercise.

This can be tricky to talk about—people who are struggling with disordered eating are often reluctant to open up about it. “When trying to help a friend, it’s important to educate yourself about eating disorders and be aware that your friend may need more help than you alone are able to give,” Martin and Lien say, who recommend finding time to sit down and talk calmly and openly with your friend. Focus the discussion around understanding what they’re going through, and finding out how you can help.

Remember to:

  • Avoid guilt, blame, interrupting, and focusing on appearance and weight.
  • Create a safe space for your friend to explore where these feelings about food arise.
  • Respect your friend’s privacy and autonomy.
  • Be patient, and don’t force your friend to eat. If it’s helpful, offer to eat with your friend to provide support.

Getting help from a professional is often part of the treatment for disordered eating. Martin and Lien recommend encouraging your friend to seek professional help, and avoid taking on the role of a therapist or social worker.

It never crossed my mind that my eating or exercise habits were unhealthy or problematic. I was living in a dreamland where calories were bad and running just one more mile was a great accomplishment.   

Then I received an email from a trusted friend who said, “I know that you’re simply doing everything that’s associated with ‘being healthy,’ but done to an extreme, it’s dangerous.” My initial reaction was defensive: “I’m being healthy!” I told myself. But doubt started to creep in.  

Wanting to settle the matter, I set up an appointment with a nutritionist. I believed that this professional would support my diet and prove that I was healthy. But during that first meeting, the nutritionist looked at me with sadness in her eyes as I described my miserly routine of small meals and big workouts. I asked her not to tell me my weight, but she informed me that it had fallen below the body mass index (BMI) range that’s considered safe.

If you notice signs of disordered eating in a friend or family member, let that person know you’re concerned and available to listen. If he or she is receptive, encourage your peer to meet with a doctor, nutritionist, or counsellor. Many school health centres offer free or low-cost consultations. 

As I began to address my behaviours, I never once harboured resentment against my friend. On the contrary, my friend’s willingness to reach out and help reminded me that people care about my well-being, and this motivated me to get healthy again.

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Waterloo Resources
Article sources

Marriam Abou-El-Haj, R. Psych, Counsellor, Dalhousie Student Health and Wellness, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia.

Colleen Conroy Amato, MSW, RSW, Counsellor, Ryerson University, Ontario.

Sophie Martin, Direct Client Support Worker, FCSS Student, and Stephanie Lien, Direct Client Support Worker, BSW Student, National Eating Disorder Information Centre, Ontario.

Christine McPhail, MSc, RD, Program Coordinator at Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre, Ontario.

American College Health Association. (2016, Spring). Canadian Reference Group Report. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II%20SPRING%202016%20CANADIAN%20REFERENCE%20GROUP%20DATA%20REPORT.pdf

Eisenberg, D., Nicklett, E. J., Roeder, K., et al. (2011). Eating disorder symptoms among college students: Prevalence, persistence, correlates, and treatment-seeking. Journal of American College Health, 59(8), 700–707.

Field, A. E., Cheung, L., Wolf, A. M., et al. (1999). Exposure to the mass media and weight concerns among girls. Pediatrics, 103(3).

Mabe A. G., Forney, K. J., & Keel, P. K. (2014). Do you “like” my photo? International Journal of Eating Disorders, 47(5), 516–523.

NEDA. (n.d.) Media and eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/media-eating-disorders

NEDA. (n.d.) Statistics and research on eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders

Tylka, T. Pressure to be muscular may lead men to unhealthy behaviors, presented at the American Psychological Association’s 2006 annual meeting. Retrieved from http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/maleobj.htm