Eating Disorder Awareness

By Michael McCutcheon, M.A.

Eating Disorder Risks and Facts

For many young people, going off to college represents a number of firsts; namely, it is the first time in their life when they can become the primary decider with regard to eating and fitness habits. "The freshman 15,” the approximately 15 pounds of body weight that many first-year college students gain as a result of the newfound freedom and responsibility of being Commander-in-Chief of their own health, is a well-known phenomenon.

As parents, your main task at this time of transition is to be supportive. However, a parent can only be supportive to the extent that they are informed about the potential bumps in the road that may lie ahead. With that in mind, it is crucial that parents be aware of the elevated risks of developing an eating disorder during college.

Though eating disorders do not discriminate with regard to race or gender, 90 percent of the people who report having an eating disorders are girls and women ages 12 to 25. A sobering statistic: 91 percent of women surveyed on college campuses have reported trying to control their weight by dieting, and 25 percent of these individuals reported using purging techniques in the pursuit of weight loss (e.g., self-induced vomiting, laxatives, and diuretics). Young women who meet criteria for anorexia nervosa are 12 times more likely to die compared with their healthy counterparts, due to the disorder's potential consequences, namely heart disease and suicide. The trend of college-age women developing an eating disorder is not dissipating. On the contrary, there has been a steady, consistent rise in the number of young women struggling with eating disorders in the U.S. every decade since 1930.

Eating disorders affect young men as well; body image concerns are thought to be highly under-reported by males due to seeing these issues as a “women’s problem” and due to masculinity being associated with fewer help-seeking behaviors.

In addition to college students gaining a newly acquired freedom with regard to eating, exercising, and privacy, they have a major cultural factor that increases their risk of developing eating issues and body insecurities: since birth, students have been bombarded with countless media images that display unattainable ideals of beauty and fitness, typically featuring PhotoShopped models with impossibly flat stomachs and zero percent body fat. Young men are constantly faced with covers of so-called health magazines that focus on big arm and chest muscles and cartoon-like abdominals, which may inspire them to eat very large amounts of protein-laden foods and adopt extreme exercise routines that result in many hours at the gym in the hopes of achieving a “perfect body.”

When faced with such a barrage of distorted images, it is no wonder that a staggering 30 million Americans (9% of the total population) meet the criteria for an eating disorder. These numbers are particularly frightening when paired with the fact that people struggling with an eating disorder are five times as likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs.

What Can You Do to Help?

So what can you do to support your college student avoid and/or combat eating concerns during this exciting time of personal and intellectual development? For starters, learn all you can about potential warning signs and habits that might indicate your student is struggling with negative feelings about their body. Once you feel more informed about what an eating disorder looks like, be persistent and gentle. The most important thing you can do is to concentrate on your relationship with and your love and support for your student. Eating disorders, at their root, are not about weight or food.

Below are some helpful resources for learning more about eating disorders and how to talk with your student in a loving way about this sensitive subject.