Trauma-informed nutritionist and previous guest of Orri’s Instagram Lives, Kaysha Thomas, shares her specialist advice on how students can manage food upon return, or arrival, at university.
Transitions are a normal part of life and can be an opportunity to develop resilience.
Transitions can be especially difficult for those experiencing mental health problems. In fact, struggling with this transition can have a negative impact on your well-being and mental performance. The transition into university ought to be as carefully managed as any other transition we encounter in life.
Going to university and having the responsibility of feeding yourself can be difficult for those whose stress and anxiety increase their eating disorder behaviours. Having support, knowing when to reach out for help, being able to use healthy coping mechanisms and how to nourish yourself are all important factors to think about before and during your course.
In this blog, I wanted to focus on food management when starting university with an eating disorder.
What is covered:
- Making use of the university’s resources
- The importance of food structure
- Having a food plan that has some flexibility
- Focusing on your own food needs
- Practice some of your favourite recipes
- Portable snacks
- Being mindful of alcohol’s impact on your mental well-being
- Recognising your recovery wins
Students at universities have access to a variety of well-being services. This support usually includes counselling, financial support, budgeting, academic tutorials, medical and peer-to-peer support through student unions. The support on offer will vary depending on your university. Check your university’s student portal to see what’s available. If you’re looking for a university, try searching for “wellbeing support at university name” or “student support at university name.”
Eating disorder food behaviours are frequently associated with chaotic or rigid food patterns.Eating regular meals and snacks is important for maintaining energy levels and balanced blood sugars. Helpful for so many reasons, but in the context of university, it’s great for maintaining optimal cognitive function.
Structured eating helps to minimise eating disorder behaviours such as skipping meals, and delaying meals. It also helps break the binge-restrict cycle. Having regular nourishing meals and snacks is also needed to address any nutrient deficiencies as well as help regulate your appetite, metabolism and digestive function. Aim to eat at least three meals and snacks no more than three hours apart (it can always be less). Work toward having a combination of carbohydrates, fats and proteins in each meal and snack.
If eating regular meals is new to you, you might find it more manageable to focus on one portion of the day, focusing on the foods that feel safer or perhaps build this skill on the days when you have more control over your daily schedule.
Having a meal plan can be helpful for those who get stuck when trying to decide what to eat on a day-to-day basis. It’s important that your meal plans have some flexibility. A rigid meal plan can lead to feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction around food.
The aim is for the meal plan to give guidance on meal options. One way to achieve this is by giving yourself perhaps two or three options, ranked by their easieness to prepare for each meal or snack. So on the days that you’re struggling, you have an easy go-to option on your meal plan that is still nourishing.
You may also want to allow for any social eating activities that you may partake in. If we use the pizza night example again. That would look like having the option to take part in pizza night and perhaps having a backup plan if, for any reason you aren’t able to join in on that occasion.
If possible, have someone you trust review your food plan.This can be reassuring (especially on the days when that critical voice is loud).
Helpful food planning can be a good skill to build for life beyond recovery, too. Having some idea of what you’re going to eat for the week, as well as allowing for days where you may be short on time or energy is all part of everyday adult life skills.
It’s not uncommon for me to hear of clients’ experiences of not feeling comfortable eating when no one else is eating. A lot of the time, this comes from a lack of trust in their body’s cues for hunger and not feeling able to give themselves permission to eat. Therefore, this “permission” is sometimes granted when others feed themselves.
Eating disorders can also cause competitiveness and comparisons around food. Therefore, part of your recovery is to challenge these unhelpful thought patterns. Attuning to and respecting your own body’s needs is a key part of eating disorder recovery. Your nutrition needs are not connected to the nutrition needs of anyone else.
Again, having a meal plan and structured eating can help (especially if you’re disconnected from your appetite cues).
Building your confidence in the kitchen will give you more meal options. Our favourite meals can also provide comfort. It also might not be easy to get access to cultural foods that you enjoy. Take the time to pick out some recipes and practise cooking them in a familiar setting. This is likely to be less stressful than learning these recipes in a shared kitchen.
Be sure to take helpful notes as you learn the dishes. That way you won’t feel too overwhelmed when trying it out in a new kitchen. Don’t be discouraged if your meals take a while to get the hang of, practice makes progress.
Sometimes lecture schedules are tight and this can make snacktimes challenging. Before the temptation of skipping a snack creeps in, arm yourself with some of your favourite portable snacks. Flapjacks, nuts, fruit, wraps (e.g. banana and peanut butter), chocolate and cheese are all portable snacks that need little or no refrigeration.
Whilst drinking at university socials may feel like a right of passage, it’s not compulsory. The interplay between alcohol and mental health really deserves a blog post of its own. But what’s particularly important to note is the impact alcohol can have on one’s mental health. Depressants, such as alcohol, disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain and affect feelings, thoughts, and behaviours.
After consuming alcohol, your brain’s inhibition centre may be affected, making you feel relaxed, less anxious, and more confident. These effects typically only last for a short while.
From a nutritional perspective, alcohol can make it difficult to attune to your hunger and fullness signals. It can also make it harder to balance your blood sugar levels which can sometimes trigger binge eating.
Your decision to drink alcohol is going to be dependent on many factors, such as personal preference, medication interactions, health conditions and your readiness to do so. Nonetheless, I feel it’s important to recognise the potential impact alcohol can have on your mental and physical health.
Seek support if drinking alcohol exacerbates your eating disorder behaviours (e.g., restriction or compensation, binge eating, purging).Likewise, if alcohol is being used to eat certain foods you would struggle to eat sober.
Nonetheless, drinking responsibly and keeping yourself safe is key . A few things that may help are:
- Not drinking on an empty stomach.
- Alcohol is not a substitute for meals or snacks.
- Hydrating optimally before drinking and throughout the course of the day/night.
- Take it slow so that you can regularly check in with yourself.
- Remember that you don’t have to drink alcohol for the entire event, you can switch to non-alcoholic drinks whenever you want.
- Practice setting firm boundaries with anyone who pressures you to drink more than you want to.
- Find balance between the days you drink and alcohol-free days.
- Have a self-care plan to help cope with any uncomfortable mental or physical side effects.
- Check contraindications for any medications you are taking.
Buy yourself a book you like the look and feel of and record your wins at least once a week. I don’t need to remind anyone that recovery is harder on some days than others. On the harder days, it can be easy to forget all the hard work that has brought you to where you are. No win is “too small” in recovery. In fact, those smaller victories add up. Recognising your recovery wins is also confirmation that you can do things you once thought impossible.
Recovery is non-linear and there may be times when you find yourself working through something you had already overcome. This is a normal part of recovery.
No relapse or slip-up can ever take away your recovery wins. I like using the analogy of a recovery process being like waking up on a spiral staircase ( not my analogy, I forget where I first saw this). We move up and through various stages, and we may feel like we have arrived at a stage more than once. However, having moved through it before, we are now arriving with a deeper understanding. We’re not in the same place, rather, we are seeing things from a different perspective. We’re further up the staircase. So whenever a problem reappears, it’s not a sign of failure. Repetition is part of the process.
You needn’t approach this with an all-or-nothing mindset. Perhaps there are one or two areas you feel are easier to start with. Or maybe an area that feels most important to you. Pause and take some time to reflect on what feels like a doable next step for you.
You can watch Kerrie, Orri CEO & Founder, in conversation with Kaysha on our Instagram, here.
Kaysha Thomas is a Registered Nutritional Therapist, Pilates Instructor and mental health blogger.
She writes about mental health, self-love, nutrition and mindful movement. You can read Kaysha’s blog at www.kayshathomas.com