Eating Disorders and Freshman Year of College
What to watch out for and how to help.
Changes in weight during freshman year in college are not uncommon. Some
students may gain a bit of weight — though usually only between
between two to five pounds (the “Freshman 15” is exaggerated)
— while others may lose a few pounds, whether from stress or the
change in their diet from home to cafeteria food.
These minor fluctuations are usually not a cause for concern. But for some
young adults a change in weight, either up or down, can be the first sign
of a developing eating disorder such as bulimia or anorexia. This is particularly
true of first year college students who are especially vulnerable to the
stresses that may trigger these conditions.
According to Dr. Lori A. Schur — a Registered Nurse, PhD-licensed
psychologist, and eating disorders specialist with Torrance Memorial Medical
Center’s Medical Stabilization Program —parents of new college
students should be mindful of these potential risks, and watch their new
student carefully for signs that a change in weight may actually be an
indication of a more serious problem.
With over 20 years of experience working with eating disorder patients,
Dr. Schur shares her insights into why young people are especially vulnerable
during this important transition in their lives; how you can prepare your
child before he or she goes away to school; what to watch out for so you
can spot a developing eating disorder; and how to help your child if you
Why are freshman year students more at risk of developing an eating disorder?
While there is evidence that many young adults who struggle with eating
disorders have a genetic predisposition to this type of disease, the condition
itself is often triggered by environmental factors. These factors often
include social pressures, an unhealthy focus on appearance, academic challenges,
the adjustment to a new environment, or the transition to making independent
lifestyle decisions for the first time.
These types of triggers make freshman year of college a perfect storm for
developing an eating disorder, and if your child is struggling to manage
the adjustment to college, food may seem like the only aspect of life
he or she can control.
Additionally, says Dr. Schur, the increased alcohol consumption that often
happens in college “can be especially problematic for girls. If
they don’t want to gain weight they will drink anyway, but often
skip eating during the day to decrease the amount of food they eat. And,
this type of disordered eating can lead to anorexia or bulimia.”
What warning signs should you look for?
The first few visits home are an important opportunity to observe your
child for changes in their appearance or their behavior. Look for potential
warning signs such as:
- A noticeable weight change since going to school
- Changes in regular food habits; for example, the exclusion of entire food
groups such as limited or no carbohydrates
- Preparing but not eating holiday meals
- Complaints about stomach aches or other ailments associated with poor eating
- Excessive exercise, even outdoors in poor winter weather conditions or when ill
- Avoidance of family and friends
- High levels of stress or anxiety when discussing college, or avoiding the
subject of school altogether.
It is important to understand that not all people with eating disorders
are emaciated or even thin. Your child may be a normal weight, but show
abnormal eating behaviors.
How can you prevent your college student from developing an eating disorder?
Dr. Schur advises parents to help their children prepare for college by
giving them some control over their daily lives while they are still in
high school. A certain amount of freedom, while they are still living
at home, will help smooth the transition to early adulthood that happens
when they start school. This may include selecting some of the foods they
eat, choosing when to go to bed, and managing their own schedule and time.
Additionally, Dr. Schur believes that modeling healthy behaviors is extremely
important if you want your child to develop a healthy attitude toward
food. Avoid fad weight-loss diets, including those that severely restrict
food groups or use cleanses or “juicing”. Demonstrate through
your own habits that a good balanced diet is an important part of taking
care of yourself.
Finally, do not focus on weight as evidence of attractiveness or good health.
In a culture already obsessed with unrealistic body image it is important
that parents deemphasize weight as a measure of self-worth.
What should you do if you suspect your child is developing an eating disorder?
Early intervention can make all the difference. If you suspect your child
is developing an eating disorder you need to address it immediately, before
it gets out of control. Here is what you can do:
Educate yourself. There is a lot of excellent information on the internet about eating disorders;
what to look for, how to help your child and when to seek professional
help. You can start by finding valuable information and resources on the
NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) website.
Talk to your child, but avoid being judgmental. Dr. Schur recommends starting a conversation by discussing what you have
observed and asking whether there is anything you can do to help. Keep
the discussion calm and non-accusatory. Remember that an eating disorder
is a both a psychological and medical disease and your child may be in
denial about what he or she is experiencing.
Get professional help. If your son or daughter doesn’t feel comfortable speaking with you
— and this is highly likely — offer to make an appointment
with a therapist, physician or dietitian that specializes in the assessment
and treatment of eating disorders. If you worried that your child is suffering
from an eating disorder, but is minimizing or in denial about their illness,
get help for them. Do not accept no for answer.
Use college resources. Most college campuses have a mental health service for students that includes
resources for people with eating disorders. Once your child has been diagnosed
and is in treatment you can have your child sign a release of information
that allows the staff to notify you about how he or she is doing.
Don’t give up. People with eating disorders are clever at hiding their behavior. Stay
vigilant and keep the conversation going. If your child avoids discussing
their eating disorder don’t just let it go. Stay in touch and try
to have Skype or Facetime calls so you can check on their appearance and demeanor.
If your child shows signs of struggling with an eating disorder don’t
wait to get help. Early intervention can significantly improve his or
her chances of a full recovery, and therefore a healthy and productive life.