Having an eating disorder at university

It can be hard enough living with an eating disorder when you're surrounded by family and friends, but what happens if you're struggling with one at university? We spoke to eating disorder expert, Una Foye.

Girl in a red headwrap bites her thumb and looks down at her desk.

You don't have to go through it alone.

How common are eating disorders at university?

It’s hard to say but, in 2013, the eating disorder charity Beat spoke to 200 university students who had eating disorders. The charity found that 32% of the students were diagnosed after moving away to university.

What if you already have an eating disorder before going to university?

The transition of moving away and the new independence it gives you can be a struggle – for example, there’s often no one to help you manage your eating habits. This is something that your family, friends or doctors at home may have been helping you with. It’s likely that you’ll be moving away from these established support networks when you start university.

Alongside this, the possible stresses of university, including deadlines and a new social life, could also put a lot of pressure on you.

It can be tricky to find new means of support but this doesn’t have to be the case. Your university should have a student support service where you can seek help with your wellbeing. It’s also worth signing up to your local doctor and making them aware of your situation.

But what about those who were fine before university and now suddenly… aren’t?

Eating disorders often build up slowly and derive from many factors in a person’s life. The most confident person can struggle with their mental health just as much as a self-conscious person.

In fact, Una Foye, a mental health researcher with a PhD in eating disorders, says: “Eating disorders are more likely to affect high achieving individuals.” The pressure of having to achieve often in a bigger, alien environment can sometimes be the trigger.

However, Una also says that it’s important to remember that “eating disorders don’t discriminate”. You never know what someone else is going through.

Why might someone develop an eating disorder at uni?

There are many factors that can culminate in an eating disorder. Some may struggle with confidence, self-esteem, pressure or stress and an eating disorder may develop as a coping mechanism.

“There is also the freedom to engage in disordered eating behaviours because you are in control of your cooking and mealtimes,” Una says. “If you are vulnerable to an eating disorder the transition to adult life at university means it can be very easy to spiral.”

I think I’m struggling

If you think you’re struggling with your own eating disorder then it’s great that you’re reading this and searching for support. That’s a big first step.

The next step would be to see your GP or, if you don’t feel able to, get in contact with a charity such as Beat who can support you.

Don’t let your eating disorder dictate your future and don’t let it put you off going to university. There is support out there.

Someone I know is struggling and I’m far away

The best thing you can do is keep talking to them. Keeping up contact can ensure they know that someone is there for them and could even encourage them to reach out to you.

If you feel able to bring it up with them, do it gently. “They might deny things or get angry at you,” says Una. “This is normal but it’s important not to get angry back at them.”

You could send them links to Beat so they can reach out discreetly in their own time. Ultimately, you can’t fix someone’s eating disorder and you’re not expected to. All you can do is be the best, supportive friend or family member you can be.

How could this all be prevented?

Be sure to have support networks in place. Organise weekly (or even daily) catch ups with family and friends, sign up with your local doctor and know where to go within your university for support.

Always be open with your emotions – with others and yourself. Whether it’s talking to a friend, doctor, university lecturer or someone here at The Mix. Catching any unusual thoughts early can stop anything more serious in its tracks.

Next Steps

  • Beat help people overcome eating disorders through helplines, online support and self-help groups. Call 0808 801 0677 or, if you're under 18, call their Youthline on 0808 801 0711.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


Updated on 05-Aug-2016

Photo credit.