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Eating Disorders Rise Sharply During First Year of College

Experts advise parents to be aware of changes in their kids' behavior when they first come home from college.


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By McCarton Ackerman


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While the "Freshman 15" remains a humorous trope for many incoming freshman, the reality is that eating disorders often set in during the first year of college. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25% of college students have eating disorders, while the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that the same percentage of college women maintain their weight by binging and purging. Although the problem is more widespread among women, 10 to 15% of all anorexics and bulimics are male. And the average age for onset of anorexia is bulimia is 18 to 20, roughly the same age that most teens begin college. For parents who have noticed a drastic shift in weight with their child, most counselors and therapists recommend broaching the subject delicately. "Ask open-ended, tentative questions," advises Nashville, Tenn. psychotherapist Kim Simpson. "[Say] I notice your eating habits changed. Want to talk about that?" Holly Fitzhenry, a Mercy Ministries counselor, advises being even more subtle. "Don't come at it from an eating angle," she recommends. Parents can ask, "What went well for you this semester? What are you disappointed with?" That could include friends, grades, or food, offering a segue to discussion of the campus meal plan. Experts suggest asking: "Did your plan include too much food? Not enough?" This can lead in to: "You seem anxious/sad/preoccupied with food. I'm concerned. Anything you want to talk about?"

Parents should look for the common signs of an eating disorder in their child, which may include anxiousness, isolation, an obsession with appearance and/or food, and disappearing after meals, particularly to the bathroom. They are also encouraged to schedule an appointment with a family doctor and, if necessary, seek professional help. For resources and information on how to help a child who may be struggling with an eating disorder, contact the following organizations:

National Eating Disorders Association, helpline: 1-800-931-2237

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, helpline: 630-577-1330, email

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