College is a time of transition and fresh beginnings, full of opportunities for independence and self-discovery. The transition to college can also be a high-risk period for the onset of eating disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25 percent of college students (one out of every 10 of them male) develop eating disorders, as compared with one to five percent of the general population.
While many young adults navigate the first week of college with few bumps, quickly finding ways to manage the inevitable feelings of homesickness and isolation, some resort to less healthy ways to cope with these stressors. There are academic and peer pressures. Students are often away from home for the first time. There is also the sense that of being a small fish in a big pond, and sometimes students who had excelled academically and socially are no longer “special.” They may use the eating disorder as a way to compete with others (“If I can’t get the highest grade in the class, at least I can be the skinniest”) or as a way to exert control.
There is also the dreaded freshman 15. With the abundance of food available in the dining hall, many students overindulge, resulting in weight gain. They often learn unhealthy compensatory behaviors – such as purging and laxative abuse – from peers.
To combat these stresses, it is important for those who are college bound to be aware warning signs of eating disorders, and seek help if they notice them. For parents of freshman, checking in about how kids are transitioning, and being aware of warning signs, is also helpful.
Some warning signs of disordered eating include:
· Frequently weighing oneself (more than 1/week)
· Mood changes based on the scale
· Strict ideas of “good” and “bad” foods
· Avoidance of socializing if it involves food
· Guilt after overeating
· Skipping meals or purging as a way to diet
· Abusing diet pills or laxatives
· Preoccupation with food and calories
Embark on the college experience with healthy expectations. It takes time to adjust to new people and a new environment. Most college campuses have counselors available to help when things seem difficult.