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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Klyce, LICSW-S, PIP, CEDS-S

Eating Disorder Recovery During Your Freshman Year of College, Part 2: Food Fears

This is the second post in a series of five, discussing the challenges of navigating eating disorder recovery as a college freshman. In the previous post, I focused on relapse prevention in college. In this post, I will delve into the common fears around food that incoming freshmen often face at various stages of their eating disorder recovery and provide effective coping strategies to help tackle these challenges.

Even if significant progress has been made when it comes to eating behaviors and interactions with food, entering the unknown of college dining can pose challenges. Some of the commonly cited fears that we will be exploring today are:

  • unknown foods/decreased access to foods that have started to feel safer

  • buffet style dining

  • plating your own meals

  • social eating

  • changes in timing of meals/snacks

Unknown foods/decreased access to foods that have started to feel safer

Although you may have visited your college a few times, you probably didn't fully familiarize yourself with what dining on campus will be like for you. For individuals who have struggled with restricting behaviors, meeting nutritional needs may now be possible but limited in terms of variety. Having a small number of foods that feel safe can heighten anxiety when facing unfamiliar dining environments.

Additionally, some individuals have achieved positive results in their recovery by adopting a deliberate approach to meal planning and scheduling. However, when you're not familiar with all the dining options available at your school, it can be incredibly challenging to plan out your meals effectively.

Ways to cope: This is something that truly improves with time. In the meantime, consider reaching out to eating disorder dietitians who are either on campus or regularly work with students at your school. They are often familiar with the dining options and can provide guidance, as well as examples of safer meal options. It can also be beneficial to come up with a list of doable meal options that you can easily access or prepare in your dorm, just in case the dining hall options become overwhelming. As you become more comfortable with the typical options, you can gradually challenge yourself to expand the variety of foods you feel comfortable with.

Buffet style dining

One of the primary dining choices on your campus will likely be a cafeteria offering buffet-style meals. This can be particularly anxiety-inducing for individuals who have wrestled with binge-eating tendencies, as it may trigger fears of having unrestricted access to food, including items that have previously served as triggers for binge eating.

Ways to cope: Recognizing that restriction often leads to binge behaviors, it is essential to prioritize adequately meeting your nutritional needs. In addition, you can explore what strategies work best for you. This might involve enjoying meals with friends or preparing a to-go box. Practicing mindfulness and learning to get in touch with your hunger and fullness cues can be beneficial, fostering a sense of trust in your body over time. Remember, it's normal to occasionally feel overly full or like you haven't had enough. Perfection is not the goal, but by connecting with your body's cues and having faith in its wisdom, you can find comfort in knowing that it will guide you in taking care of yourself.

Plating your own meals

While some individuals may be at a point in their recovery where they are able eat what is plated for them (typically by a family member) with limited anxiety, plating their own meals may increase the internal dialogue of the eating disorder and intensify feelings of guilt. This, in turn, can result in reverting to more restrictive eating patterns, an escalation in purging behaviors, and a reluctance to participate in food exposure challenges.

Ways to cope: It can be helpful to think back to the skills that worked best for you in handling the initial guilt of challenging eating disorder thoughts. For some it is focusing on recognizing and aligning with their healthy-self voice, others find distraction techniques helpful, and some explore whether the eating disorder behavior or recovery behavior is more in line with their values and ultimate goals. If you are struggling with purging, it can be beneficial to create a post-meal plan for accountability and support. To combat the urge to resort to restricting or reducing your food exposure challenges, it can be beneficial to have the support of your team to collaborate on identifying goals that align with your current stage of recovery.

Social eating

Social eating can present challenges for individuals with eating disorders due to various reasons. Some of these factors may include:

  • fear of judgment around food choices

  • increased comparisons to what others are eating

  • needing increased flexibility when it comes to food in social settings (timing, types, etc.)

  • sensory components such as the sound of others eating or smells of others food

This could result in avoiding situations involving social eating or conforming to others' behaviors in an attempt to feel "normal" around food, even if it means neglecting your own recovery needs.

Ways to cope: Challenging fears is the best way to diminish them, continuing to eat around others despite fears of judgment surrounding food choices will work to lessen the fear. As far as comparisons, remembering that everyone’s body has unique needs when it comes to what adequate fueling looks like for them. Try to refocus on whether your meal meeting your needs rather than comparing to what others are eating. Flexibility around eating may be something that you are pushing into, if that is the case social eating can provide natural ways to practice this even though it may be anxiety provoking. If flexibility is not an area you are currently working on, sticking to your timing and preferred places to eat and inviting others along can be a good middle ground. As far as sensory concerns, eating at places with good ventilation, eating outdoors, or picking times to eat that are outside of the busiest times can be helpful as well as wearing noise cancelling/dampening earbuds or headphones. Once trust has been built, disclosure of your eating disorder and recovery process can be helpful in building up your support and navigating social eating challenges. If it seems like you are unable to maintain recovery behaviors while eating with others, eating by yourself may be what works for now and working with your team on what social eating looks like for you as you move forward can be a good topic for discussion.

Changes in timing of meals/snacks

In high school, the daily routine is fairly consistent, especially when it comes to breakfast, lunch, and snack schedules. The only variations in time usually occur during dinner to accommodate after-school activities. In college, it becomes the norm to have varying schedules, with classes at different times on different days, adopting a different sleep/wake schedule overall, or having classes that run through meal or snack times. Depending on an individual's specific challenges in their recovery, this can contribute to heightened anxiety surrounding meals, skipping meals or snacks, or even triggering binge behaviors due to longer gaps between eating.

Ways to cope: Creating a daily schedule of classes and commitments is a great starting point to see where your meals and snacks will fit in. You might need to collaborate with a professor to make arrangements for eating in class or have convenient on-the-go options if you have a tight class schedule. When reviewing your schedule, ensure you don't go too long between meals or snacks to minimize any urges to binge. It's important to understand yourself and where you are in your recovery. Can you maintain your fueling needs if you sleep in and wake up around lunchtime, or will it become an excuse to restrict your intake? If it's the latter, establishing consistent wake-up times can help safeguard your recovery.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, I hope it addresses some of the ways to cope with potential fears you may have surrounding how to manage food fears during your freshman year of college. Even if your recovery is in a solid place, interacting with food in different ways may be challenging and can highlight some opportunities for continued growth. The next post will be coming soon and I will be writing about managing comparisons in college.

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