Being a student is often described as an almost identical and simplified shared experience when the truth is far more complicated. The experience of university can often be stressful and overwhelming with constant new challenges making it even more important to seek help when problems arise.
For those who have an eating disorder, or may be vulnerable to developing one, it can be a particularly difficult time. While anyone including boys and men can develop an eating disorder at any age, girls and young women in particular aged 12-20 are at especially high risk.
An eating disorder is never the fault of the person experiencing it, and anyone who has an eating disorder deserves fast, compassionate support to help them get better.
What are eating disorders?
An eating disorder is when someone adopts a disordered eating behaviour to cope with difficult feelings or situations. It is important to remember that eating disorders are not all about food itself but about feelings whether it’s being more able to cope or feeling in control, although they may not be aware of the behaviours purpose.
Behaviours can include limiting the amount of food eaten, eating large quantities of food at once, getting rid of food eaten through unhealthy means (e.g. making themselves sick, misusing laxatives, fasting or engaging in excessive exercise) or a combination of all of these.
What types of eating disorder are they?
There are several eating disorders that someone can be diagnosed with, but it is possible for individuals to move between diagnoses if their symptoms change and there is often a lot of overlap between different disorders. They include:
Anorexia Nervosa is a condition that typically develops out of anxiety around weight and body shape. The way they see themselves and how they perceive others to see them is often distorted, with some developing rules around what, how and when they can eat.
Bulimia Nervosa is a condition that typically develops out of a desire to control weight by severely restricting the amount of food someone eats. They are often caught in a cycle of eating larger quantities (bingeing) and then compensating by vomiting, taking laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or exercising excessively (purging).
Binge Eating Disorder (BED)
Binge eating is where someone eats a large quantities of food over a short period of time often even when not hungry. Unlike those with bulimia they don’t usually follow this by getting rid of the food although they might fast between binges.
Other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED)
OFSED is includes symptoms which do not exactly fit anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, although can include the symptoms of each of these. It is often an umbrella term for numerous different symptoms of varying frequency or duration.
Avoidant / restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
ARFID is a condition that typically is characterised by someone avoiding certain foods or type of food, having restricted intake in terms of overall amount eaten, or both for a variety of reasons. Such behaviour is usually to such an extent where it is having a negative impact on a person’s physical and psychological wellbeing.
If you are suffering from or worried that you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, there are a range of services which you can approach for support. In the first instance you may wish to discuss the issue with your GP. They will assess your physical and mental health and be able to recommend and refer to specialist services if needed.
BEAT (www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk) is the UK’s eating disorder charity and provides a range of support to those who have, are worried they may have or are affected by an eating disorder. There website includes a variety of resources and information including a chatroom and message board.
They operate multiple helplines including one specifically for students on 0808 801 0811 as well as an online one-to-one web chat. These are available 365 days a year from 9am-8pm during the week and 4pm-8pm on weekends and bank holidays. Other support services include:
- Anorexia and Bulimia Care (www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk) – a helpline and email support service providing practical guidance for anyone affected by eating disorders.
- National Centre for Eating Disorders (www.eating-disorders.org.uk) – a independent organisation providing counselling, professional training and information on eating disorders.
Supporting someone with an eating disorder
Talking to someone is often the first step to take when you know they are going through a difficult time although many struggle to know how to approach such conversations. It is important to try not to overthink conversations and that only by speaking to someone about an eating disorder can you find out what is troubling them and what you can do to help.
Below are seven tips for supporting someone with an eating disorder:
- Provide reassurance – Recognise they might not want to talk about their feelings but just know that someone is supporting them is the best help there is.
- Try not to take offence of comments they don’t mean – they might distance themselves or not make any effort, try to be patient with them.
- Recognise they might lie about what they have or haven’t eaten – They are only following the rules of their eating disorder and lying can appear to be the easiest option.
- Don’t threaten them into eating – Doing so can push sufferers away and leave them feeling isolated, wanting recovery is often the first step to overcoming an eating disorder.
- Continue to engage with them – Keep inviting them out and offering to socialise even if a friend may find it difficult to socialise, especially if doing so involves food.
- Don’t treat them differently – Remember that they are not defined by their eating disorder, they are the same person and will realise various thing in life worth enjoying.
- Set a good example – Try not to talk about weight/calories/food or exercise, sufferers often compare themselves to others and may develop guilt from such discussions.
What can the AberSU Advice Service do to help?
The AberSU Advice Service is independent from the University and provides a free, confidential, and impartial service to all Aberystwyth University students.
The Advice Service can assist you in a range of ways, including:
- Providing impartial advice for your circumstances.
- Advice on how to respond to allegations and preparing for any meetings.
- Accompany you where appropriate to any meetings to provide support and representation.
- Help signpost you to other support services.
Contact an Advisor
Anorexia and Bulimia Care
National Centre for Eating Disorders
First Produced: December 2020
Reviewed: September 2023