Health & Safety

Diet and exercise — staying in balance

By Diane Schwemm

Over the course of fall semester, college students gradually settle into a routine. Back home, parents cross their fingers, hoping their students are eating well and finding time to be active.

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We understand, though, that college life makes it hard to strike a healthy balance. First-year students especially face lots of pressures and challenges. They may skip meals, have crazy sleep schedules, overindulge, and model themselves after peers with unhealthy habits.

When they come home for Thanksgiving or Winter Break, we finally get a chance to spend extended time with our college students. What happens if we’re worried by what we see and hear?

Eating disorders on campus — The statistics

According to a study by NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association, up to 1/3 of women in college and about 10% of men are affected by an eating disorder. Students interviewed for a Fox News piece, “The university food fight: Eating disorders boom on college campuses,” related that “disordered eating habits have become normalized” on campus. Many students skip lunch in order to go out to dinner, or skip dinner to “save calories” for drinking later. They regularly go on the “nap diet” — taking a nap instead of eating when hungry.

Beyond the “Freshman 15”

Sometimes a student comes home from college and there is a visible reason to be concerned, such as a dramatic upswing or downswing in body weight. But many students teetering on the edge of an eating disorder don’t show a weight change at all. (And according to NEDA, the “Freshman 15” weight gain is a myth — the average college freshman gains 3 pounds.)

When you talk to your student and he describes his routine or activities, or when he is home, you might observe something more subtle. A pattern of disordered eating and/or exercise can be the first sign that your student is developing an unhealthy relationship with eating and the body. Look for these warning signs:

  • A rules-based rigidity about what foods he can and can’t eat, or the timing of meals or the mixing of foods
  • Secrecy around eating
  • Avoidance of situations or events that will include food
  • A retreat from his normal social life (after having been a social person)
  • Excessive calorie counting or food logging, possibly in conjunction with exercise
  • Feeling compelled to exercise before he can allow himself a meal
  • Skipping class to go to the gym
  • Lack of normal energy

Talking about a sensitive subject

It’s important to talk to our at-risk students about eating disorders, which are most treatable when detected and addressed early. There is support on campus, and you can engage and support your student as well. This is the most important moment to assure your student you are on his side.

story-icon-bar-convo-3In addition to researching services available on campus, the National Eating Disorders Association website has information for parents and students or you can steer your student to Proud2BMe, an online community created by and for teens and young adults.

These conversations are not easy. I asked Jane Reagan, a Registered Dietician at the Wardenburg Health Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, for tips about broaching the subject. She encourages parents to be proactive. “Your student may be open about having a problem, or in denial, but you have to try and not worry about their reaction,” Jane counsels. Parents sometimes feel they don’t know what to do and so therefore do nothing — which a student may read as meaning “there’s no problem” or “I don’t matter.”

“Listen to your student, and empathize,” Jane suggests. Parents can research resources on and near campus, and give the student a list of names and numbers. A mental health specialist can run an eating disorder screen, or your student may be more comfortable starting with an online self-screen. This first step can be a reality check for a student who thinks his disordered eating and exercise habits are actually healthy.

Some conversation starters:

  • “I hear what a struggle this is for you. How can I help?”
  • “Just humor me and go one time.”
  • “I’m concerned and want to make sure this doesn’t get away from you.”
  • “I love you no matter what. We need to get you some help.”

Jane pointed out that Registered Dieticians at campus health and wellness centers are busy — her own schedule fills up. In addition, not every RD has expertise with eating disorders. Families may want to consider adjunct therapy and support.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for additional tips, insight, and to help your college student succeed. You may also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our Community Forum and College Parents’ Facebook group.

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