How Parents Can Support Students with Eating Disorders in College

Sometimes, students in college can develop an unhealthy relationship with food. Learn how you can help your child, even from afar.

Starting college and being away from home for the first time can trigger disordered eating.

Experts say that an intense preoccupation with food and weight is a behavior you should watch out for in your child. It may be a sign of an eating disorder. Take note if your child is consumed with thoughts about food or experiences extreme emotions surrounding its consumption. Losing a noticeable amount of weight in a short period of time should also be a cause for concern.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), anorexia (inadequate food intake), bulimia (frequent episodes of high food consumption followed by purging), and binge-eating disorder (frequent episodes of high food consumption not followed by weight-control behavior), are serious, life-threatening mental illnesses that affect more than half a million teens and young adults each year.

The good news is that early intervention can successfully treat eating disorders, and parental involvement can make a huge difference. “Parents play a central role in their child’s recovery,” said Claire Mysko, an internationally-recognized expert on body image and director of programs at NEDA.

Recognizing The Signs

The first step is to identify whether your child’s eating patterns have become unhealthy. You may notice signs of an eating disorder when you visit your child at college (or when she comes home), during a Skype or FaceTime session, in Facebook photos — or based on things your child tells you. Keep an eye out for the following behaviors, which may be indicators of disordered eating:

  • A disruptive preoccupation with food and/or being overweight
  • A lot of talk about weight and/or a distorted body image
  • Engagement in secretive weight-control behaviors, such as taking laxatives or diet pills
  • Consumption of tiny portions or refusal of food altogether
  • Feelings of excessive guilt after consuming large amounts of fattening or sugary foods
  • Weight control through vomiting
  • Incessant exercise to burn calories and control body shape
  • Weight loss of 20 pounds or more in the last six months
  • Hiding of weight loss with baggy clothing
  • Loss of enthusiasm for sports, academics, or other activities previously enjoyed
  • Change in attitude — noticeably more angry, frustrated, depressed, or withdrawn

What You Can Do

If you believe your child may be dealing with an eating disorder, here is what you can do:

1. Educate yourself.

Visit NEDA for more information and valuable resources. The site offers a Parent Toolkit that answers questions about symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment. NEDA also provides a Parent, Family & Friends Network that puts the loved ones of those struggling with an eating disroder in touch with one another.

2. Start a conversation in a non-judgmental way.

Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of “Overcoming Binge Eating for Dummies” recommends using “I” statements, such as “I’ve noticed you’ve lost weight recently, and I’m concerned. Is there anything I can do to help?” Speaking this way will keep the focus on you and can prevent you from sounding judgmental or accusatory.

Do not come right out and say, “I think you have an eating disorder.” It’s best to start the conversation in an open-ended way.

If your son or daughter doesn’t feel comfortable speaking with you — and many won’t — then suggest making an appointment with a therapist or other health professional. “Many teenagers don’t want to converse with their parents, but they may be open to seeing a trained professional,” Nolan said. “Offer to make an appointment with a therapist, nutritionist, or family doctor — someone who can start the process.”

3. Be persistent.

Mysko pointed out that many people who struggle with eating disorders go out of their way to hide their behavior. “For example, they may show up at meals, but instead of really eating, they cleverly just move the food around their plates,” the expert explained. “If your child (or friend) is defensive, don’t give up. Make it clear that you are serious, and bring up your concerns again — it may take several attempts to connect.” If your child isn’t living at home or nearby, do your best to stay in contact.

4. Report the behavior to someone who can help.

If you are noticing behavior that is concerning, reach out to one of the professionals on your child’s campus. Mysko explained that college counseling centers often have staff members experienced in treating eating disorders. These experts will be able to offer you more insight into treatment options available at the school. If the school does not offer these kinds of services, you can contact a local therapist.

For more information about campus counseling centers, learn how to identify a a mental health friendly college.

Making Sense of a Complicated Problem

Eating disorders aren’t just about food and weight. Complex factors with complex roots contribute to their rise, and researchers now believe there may be a genetic link. Eating disorders are also correlated with depression.

“A specific gene has yet to be identified, but there seems to be a relationship between eating disorders and addictive personalities,” explains Cohn. “How a person deals with anxiety runs in families, and we do know there is a higher incidence of eating disorders in families with a history of alcoholism or drug abuse. Controlling food can be another type of coping mechanism.”

Although it can be difficult to understand, people with anorexia deny their bodies calories and nutrition in a way that mutes uncomfortable emotions like anxiety. “People who are starving don’t feel as much stress because the body isn’t capable of experiencing it at high levels. Any calories that are consumed are used for basic survival — just keeping the kidney and brain functioning. There isn’t anything left over for the hormones that regulate emotion,” says Cohn. On the other hand, binge eating behavior — consuming large amounts of high-calorie junk food—also has an effect on the way you experience stress, anger, and frustration. “For some, it makes the emotions less intense.”

For first-year college students, the stresses of a new academic and social environment can cause disordered eating. “Often those affected by this problem are high achievers with active social lives who do well at school. They seem to have it all together, but on the inside, they are constantly facing their demons,” said Cohn, adding that student athletes are at higher risk for developing an eating disorder.

New Website for College Students

To reach young men and women who are struggling with an unhealthy relationship with food, Mysko helped develop a new website, Proud2BMe. This site has an online screening tool that can assess the problem and provides expert advice, resources, and online chat rooms that can connect people struggling with a preoccupation about weight and food.

Eating disorders can have serious, long-term health consequences, including heart disease, heart failure, kidney failure, tooth decay, hair loss, muscle loss and weakness, brittle bones, and damage to the reproductive system. Getting professional help is the most effective way to treat the problem. Because physical, emotional, and social issues often play a role, a team of healthcare professionals including a therapist, nutritionist, and medical doctor may be enlisted to change the disordered behavior.

Parents and loved ones should realize that recovering from an eating disorder is a process. “It’s not a one-and-done scenario,” Nolan said. “Unfortunately, eating disorders have a high relapse rate.”

Eating disorders are not easy to deal with, said Mysko. When you are focusing on caring for someone you love, you can forget to check in with yourself. “There will be moments of frustration and utter despair,” she explained, “ but it’s important to take care of yourself. Give yourself oxygen first.”

Sources:

Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, FD, CDN, ADSM-HFS, national spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Phone interview, October 24, 2014.

Claire Mysko, program director, National Eating Disorders Association. Phone interview, October 27, 2014.

The University of Michigan Health System. “Eating Disorders: What Families Need to Know,” Web. Accessed Novebmer 21, 2014. University of Michigan Health System.

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