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Eating disorders and studying

Eating disorders today bear the stigma of the ‘modern civilisation’ diseases shaped by the influential Western media which set standards of beauty reaching the most remote corners of the world.

However, data on abnormal eating behaviour can already be found in documents from many centuries ago with the first records going back to the Middle Ages. Contemporary eating disorders, however, are a separate phenomenon and experts have been discussing their aetiology for many years. Biological, psychological, family, and social factors have been cited as contributing to the disease. Eating disorders are increasingly widespread and many students may encounter them at any stage of their studies. Let’s take a look at the most well-known eating disorders. 

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Anorexia nervosa is a disorder that affects an increasing number of young girls and women, although there are also cases among men and older people. It consists in severe food restrictions gradually leading to significant weight loss and, in the long term, to cachexia. Anorexia usually starts in adolescence when a young person faces new challenges related to the changes occurring in his or her body and psyche. The word ‘anorexia’ comes from Greek, where an means lack and orexis - appetite. The name suggests loss of appetite as the most important component of the disorder, but in reality the situation is different. In most cases a person with anorexia feels hunger, only in extreme cases after a long period of ignoring hunger signals, the body stops perceiving them. Specialists point out that it is the state of not feeling hunger that is the desired goal of the ill person.  

Bulimia nervosa is a disorder often co-occurring with anorexia. About 50% of patients with anorexia develop bulimic symptoms at some point (although the reverse can also be true). Bulimia is characterised by periodic bouts of overeating and excessive preoccupation with body weight. A bulimic person uses various methods to prevent the weight gain associated with uncontrolled food intake (e.g. vomiting, laxatives, etc.), which over time can put great strain on the body. Similarly to anorexia, bulimia mainly affects women, but in this case the disease usually starts at a later age.  

Binge eating disorder is more common than the ones mentioned above, although it is still often overlooked and underestimated by professionals. It involves repeated episodes of overeating characterised by feelings of being out of control and often by self-disgust, guilt and embarrassment. Such people frequently isolate themselves from others in order to secretly indulge in episodes of overeating. Unlike people with bulimia, they do not take action to quickly get rid of the food they have eaten. Such behaviour, apart from a significant emotional cost, also poses a high risk of obesity and diseases related to it.  

The above-mentioned examples of eating disorders do not, of course, exhaust the topic of eating disorders. Inappropriate eating patterns can also take other forms, causing a lot of suffering and somatic consequences. 

Eating disorders in students 

Being a student is a very intense period in the life of a young person, associated with many new experiences and challenges. Sometimes people who come to study at university have already been struggling with eating disorders, but entering a new environment and being confronted with the number of new responsibilities may also trigger such problems in many young people. Greater independence and the increased responsibility that comes with it can intensify feelings of insecurity, and sometimes cause a great deal of stress and inability to cope with it.   

Developed eating disorders are an integral part of the lives of those who suffer from them. Eating problems are daily reality for many students, leading to difficulties in functioning in many situations, both at university and in their personal lives. A person in the active phase of the illness devotes virtually all of his or her energy to the symptoms associated with it, and consequently other areas of life, including studies, may be pushed into the background. This often happens despite the great effort made to reconcile eating difficulties with everyday challenges.  

Eating disorders can lead to significant attention problems, making learning ineffective and sometimes even impossible. These difficulties can also arise in the period of taking tests or exams, making it impossible to finish the exam within the required time limit. Additionally, eating rituals of many people with anorexia and bulimia can consume so much time that nothing may be left to focus on demanding students’ responsibilities. People with bulimia or bulimic forms of anorexia can spend hours planning meals, shopping, and then alternating sessions of overeating, purging or exercise. In such a situation it is not easy to keep up with study, write papers or complete projects. Depression, together with suicidal thoughts, which accompanies a significant number of people with these disorders, may lead to frequent absences or periodic hospital stays, and sometimes such an individual may need to take a dean’s leave. 

The quality of the social life of people with eating disorders also deteriorates. It is well known that eating together is  an important element of social life, be it when you go out, live in a dormitory or attend house parties. Such moments are extremely stressful for people with eating disorders, often causing them to avoid such meetings and isolate themselves, which further aggravates the disorder, lowering their self-esteem. 

However, paradoxically, people with eating disorders, most often with anorexia, may achieve very good results at university, they may even excel in their studies or other activities, for example science clubs. Research shows that people with anorexia are very often ambitious people who strive hard to achieve their goals. In most cases, however, due to the factors previously described, people with eating disorders will not be able to show their full potential. 

Disability support units at universities can help students with eating disorders to adapt the study process to their needs, which is why they should be aware that they can take advantage of such a form of support. 

Reference literature 

Binge Eating Disorder: Causes, Symptoms, Signs & Treatment Help. Downloaded from: (online access: 1.10.2020). 

Jacobson, R. Eating Disorders and College. Downloaded from: (online access: 5.10.2020). 

Namysłowska I., Paszkiewicz E., Siewierska A., Gdy odchudzanie jest chorobą. Anoreksja i bulimia. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo W.A.B., 2000. 

Mehler, P., Crews, C., Weiner, K., Bulimia: Medical Complications, ‘Journal of Women's Health’, 13(6), 2004. 

Pilecki, M., Podstawy behawioralno-poznawczego rozumienia zaburzeń odżywiania się. [in]: B. Józefik (ed.), Anoreksja i bulimia psychiczna, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków 1999, p. 83-87. 

Szurowska, B., Anoreksja w rodzinie, Wydawnictwo Difin, Warszawa 2011. 

Wolska, M., Cechy indywidualne pacjentów z zaburzeniami odżywiania się. [in]: B. Józefik (ed.), Anoreksja i bulimia psychiczna, Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków 1999, p. 63-68. 

About the author

Anna Staromiejska, MA, educational advisor at the Jagiellonian University Disability Support Service.