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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Other recent articles by Diane Schwemm:
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