Young Girls and Boys at Risk for Eating Disorders during College

Many parents are getting ready to send their children off to college.  This is a very happy time and sad time for many parents and teenagers.  It is also a time, especially now, many parents worry about their child’s health and safety while their child is away at college.  Being realistic parents are not their to watch their child so they have to trust their child’s judgment.

Additionally, we are seeing a significant increase in the number of people being diagnosed with the Coronavirus Delta variant.  While their child is at home, they can keep watch and remind their child if they feel they are taking unnecessary risks.  However, they cannot do this when their child is at college.

While parents are worrying about the Coronavirus, mass shooting and how their child will do on their own, there is another issue most parents don’t worry about regarding their child.  The issue many parents do not think about is eating disorders.

Many research studies indicate that many eating disorders begin in college.  If your child had an eating disorder during high school or middle school, they are at a high risk for a release during college.  Furthermore, it’s not just girls who are at risk for eating disorders.  Boys suffer from eating disorders too.  In fact when the college population is examined 1 out of every 3 people diagnosed with an eating disorder is male (CDC, NEDA).  Additionally, eating disorders impact every ethnicity and socioeconomic group.  Therefore, eating disorders do not discriminate, but the stereotype is that it only impacts females.  A stereotype which is incorrect.

Since eating disorders most commonly occur during college, it is a good idea to discuss the issue with your children who are going to college. Since an eating disorder can occur at any time, it’s a good idea that this be an ongoing conversation while they are in college.  You don’t want to make it a one time lecture.

I have an outline below of topics to cover and how you may want to cover the various points.

1. Listen to your teen’s perspective

Rather than launch into a lecture, start by asking your young adult why they think eating disorders are so prevalent among college students. Get their take on potential vulnerabilities specific to this age group. You’ll also be able to assess their understanding of eating disorders and what misconceptions they may have.

2. Bust myths about the “freshman fifteen”

If your teen hasn’t already brought up their concerns about freshman weight gain, now is your chance to address the tired jokes and fear-mongering around this popular phrase. The reality is that, even though the average weight gain among college students is much lower than fifteen pounds, everyone responds differently to this big life transition. Remind your teen that they are still growing and, despite cultural messages to the contrary, we don’t have to demonize weight gain.

3. Address the risks of dieting—even if they call it “healthy eating”

Make sure your kids know the facts. Whether it’s a lifestyle change, a cleanse, a reset, or a weight-loss app that insists it “isn’t a diet,” restricting calories and/or food groups is likely to disrupt one’s relationship with eating. In most cases, dieting (by any name) can lead to fixation and bingeing. In others, it can cause anxiety and increasing restriction. And while eating disorders can be triggered by many factors, dieting is the single biggest predictor: one in four people who diet will go on to develop a diagnosable eating disorder.

4. Talk through the college dining experience

Navigating a campus meal plan is nothing like wandering into the kitchen at home. Acknowledge how challenging this adjustment might be. Familiar foods may not always be available and buffet-style cafeterias can be overwhelming at first. Emphasize the importance of eating regularly. Skipping meals affects mood, sleep, and concentration—and can catalyze a disorder.

5. Learn about mental health care on campus

If your child—or their roommate, teammate, or friend—seems to be struggling with body image or their relationship with food or exercise, where would they turn? The RA? A coach? University health services? Finding out more about mental health care available on campus is a great opportunity to address any lingering stigma around mental health needs and to normalize asking for help.

As you prepare to send your new college student off to school, and when they return home for breaks, be sure to make time for shared meals as a family. Family meals are a powerful protective factor against many of the stressors and pressures young people face. And, perhaps most important, when we share a meal with our teens, we are modeling the role of food as more than just calories or a nutrient-delivery system. Eating with people we love helps create a sense of safety, belonging, and joy. And that’s what we all want our kids to experience in college—and beyond.

Hopefully this is helpful for parents and college students. Again remember, it’s best if you make this an ongoing conversation while your child is going to college.  Finally it’s important to remember that both females and males develop eating disorders and die from them.

Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with over 20 years experience treating children and teenagers and trauma victims.  For more information regarding Dr. Rubino’s work visit his website at www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/Drrubino3 or his podcasts on Spotify or Apple.

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