CW: eating disorders

For most people, going to university and gaining more freedom is an exciting prospect. You no longer have to live under your parents’ roof and abide by their rules; in theory, you can do whatever you want. This includes eating: you can eat whatever, whenever, and as much or as little as you want. There are numerous benefits to being able to listen to your body and eat anything you want whenever you’re hungry, rather than having to eat specified meals at set mealtimes.

However, for some, this freedom can be overwhelming. The endless options and newfound independence make it easy to slip into disordered eating patterns, either by choice or accidentally. I started university while attempting to recover from anorexia. I found that the lack of parental supervision made it much too easy for me to simply not eat, and it was therefore difficult to resist the temptation to fall back into old habits. I also found that the busy nature of university life meant that I would often skip meals unintentionally; when I realised that I didn’t view this as a problem, I knew that I needed to take some extra steps to prevent myself from relapsing.

As well as the increase in freedom, there are various other parts of university life that can worsen or trigger disordered eating. The stress of work, and life in general, can be intense at university, especially at Oxford. This can easily lead to using certain eating habits as unhealthy coping mechanisms. You could be bingeing on comfort foods in an attempt to feel better, or restricting the amount or type of food that you eat in order to feel a stronger sense of control over your life. You may not even realise you are doing it; however, if you think about the way you view and use food, you may realise that you have been using it for purposes that are not good for your mental health. The drinking culture at university can also be an issue. For those with anorexia, there can be a temptation to skip meals before drinking, in order to make up for the calories you will consume in alcohol. For those with bulimia, throwing up can be triggering. For any type of disordered eating, the lack of food in your stomach can lead to you getting more drunk, which increases the risk of injury and ending up in dangerous situations.  

However, although university can make it easier to fall into unhealthy eating habits, recovery is always possible. While different things work for different people, and it is important that you find the things that best help you personally, I would like to share a few things that I did in the hopes that it could help someone else reading this. 

First, it’s important to take a step back, assess your eating habits, and try to be honest with yourself about whether or not they’re disordered. It can be hard to accept that you have a problem and you may justify your actions to yourself. For example, you only skipped that meal because you couldn’t be bothered to cook, or you only threw up that meal because you were feeling sick anyway. Or, it could be that the mental element of the disorder is convincing you that what you’re doing is a good thing, as it will help you lose weight. However, there’s a difference between a diet and disordered eating. While a diet simply affects the way you choose to eat, eating disorders can become all-powerful, taking over your thoughts and affecting you emotionally. The NHS defines an eating disorder as a mental health condition, where you use the control of food to cope with difficult situations and feelings. Although it isn’t easy, accepting that you have a problem is the first step in being able to fix it. 

Second, although it’s cliché, talking about it can genuinely be the most helpful thing. It allows you to turn your thoughts into a conversation; sometimes, verbalizing the things you’ve been thinking allows you to realise how illogical and harmful they are. I personally don’t find comfort in talking to my friends about topics like this, as I get worried about oversharing, so 

I chose to talk to a counsellor instead. We went through all of the reasons for my disordered eating, and worked together to find ways I could get through them. If you really don’t think that talking to someone else will help you, then just writing about your thoughts and feelings in relation to food and body image can help you to figure out what you’re feeling and why. The end goal with either method is to take the thoughts out of your head and make them easier to understand. 

Third, you can try to incorporate socialisation into your mealtimes. By eating with friends, whether in person or on FaceTime, you have a distraction from any stress that comes with eating, making it easier to get through the meal without being tempted to restrict, binge, or purge. As well as this, the presence of friends makes it more difficult to do these things. You don’t have to tell them about your disordered eating if that would make you uncomfortable. Even if they don’t know about the problem, their presence can still be helpful. 

Fourth, it is useful to ‘clean’ your social media feeds. There is plenty of triggering content in the world of social media, from posed pictures of “perfect” bodies on Instagram to blatantly pro-anorexia videos on TikTok. Even “What I Eat in a Day” videos, which could be perfectly fine for others to watch, may be harmful to you due to the mental element of the problem affecting the way you view them. This type of content can fuel your disordered eating and add to your disordered thinking patterns in relation to food. It is incredibly beneficial to unfollow or block any accounts that post triggering content like this. It can be a difficult task, as the thinking patterns of eating disorders can involve wanting to take “inspiration” from these posts. You may be reluctant to let that “inspiration” go, as you believe it is helping you reach your goal. Conversely, having these pictures on your social media feeds allows the eating disorder to take up even more space in your life; they’re a constant reminder of the problem. It’s much better to remove them, and be able to scroll through your social media feeds in peace.

Fifth, let your friends know if the way they talk about food and body image is triggering to you. At university, there is often plenty of discussion about being so busy that you forget to eat. Among friends, there can also be discussion of body image issues, and how unhealthy certain foods are. For those without disordered eating, complaining about these things can simply be a good way to vent about things you find upsetting. However, if you have an eating disorder, hearing these complaints can feed into your disordered thinking and make it worse. While you may not want to directly inform your friends that what they say is triggering, you can find alternative ways of letting them know that what they’re saying is hurtful. For example, you could try to change the course of the discussion to another topic. It can be difficult, but in the end it is better to have a possibly awkward moment that results in a better course of discussion than to sit there listening to things that just make you feel worse.

Those who are concerned they might have disordered eating habits can find further resources at