By Libby Parker 

Your baby is off to school! How did they grow up so fast? 

The bags are packed, the class schedule printed, your kid got into a great school. 

They have extracurriculars, friends, and know how to dial 911. 

The one thing you couldn’t prepare them for is the fact that transitions can be hard!

Eating Disorders (ED) can pop up at any point in life, but anytime there is a major life transition there is an increased likelihood for those with the genetics to express an ED. 

Puberty and College are the most common, and since you already have a teen, let’s chat about college.

From my master’s thesis (2018) I found that roughly 50% of college females will deal with some sort of disordered eating, and a full 13% will meet the criteria for a diagnosable eating disorder (even though less than ⅓ will actually receive a diagnosis). That is a HIGH percentage compared to other health concerns, and that is only the females, we don’t have enough research on males/non-binary to be able to say what the stats are for those populations.

The good news is that EDs have a good prognosis the earlier they are caught and treated. A treatment team consists of eating disorder experts in nutrition (Registered Dietitian), psychology (Licensed therapist), and medical care (Doctor and sometimes a psychiatrist). Additional services like ED coaching, meal support, and support groups can add to the recovery process.

So what should you be looking for as your child goes off to college? Any of the following:

  1. Skipping meals regularially, and/or coming up with excuses to not eat.
  2. Obsessively reading nutrition labels, diet books, or worrying about calories/macros.
  3. Starting to weigh food on a food scale; weighing self obsessively (I get worried when it’s more than once a month, or they put too much pressure on the number).
  4. Exercise has ramped-up to where they can’t take a day off even if sick, injured, or other plans are made. 
  5. Eating in secret (usually evidenced by wrappers/food packaging).
  6. Creating more rigid rules about what they can/can’t eat (ex: all the sudden going off gluten despite no allergy)
  7. No-low calorie foods/beverages take up more and more of their consumption (ex: gum, diet drinks, excess coffee, tea, or water to “fill up.”)
  8. They eat the same diet every day, with little to no variation.
  9. It’s hard to get them to go out to eat, or to venture to try new foods. 
  10. Becoming more withdrawn and/or self-conscious. Possibly trying to hide their body.
  11. They go to the bathroom quickly after eating (you may hear vomiting).
  12. Rapid weight loss or gain (though not all EDs will experience this).
  13. Losing passion for things they once loved.
  14. Becoming more irritable or difficult to have a coherent conversation with.
  15. Their phone apps, social media, or google searches show a lot of food/diet/exercise accounts. (My Fitness Pal is a common ED-used app)

What can you do?

  1. Most important – just be a good parent/family member. Don’t treat them too differently. Listen. Love them. Be there for them.
  2. Help them get help / a professional assessment if you are concerned. Most people are in denial of disordered eating at first, claiming they are “being healthy,” but go with your gut if something feels off.
  3. Make sure they are not taking on too much. Many times perfectionism and EDs go hand-in-hand. Make sure they are not taking crazy class loads while being on the board of several clubs and doing sports. Talk to them about priorities, and that you will not love them less if they are not a high achiever.
  4. Educate yourself. Read ED books, go to a family member support group, go to your own therapy. EDs are hard to understand if you haven’t gone through it yourself, so take the time to try to understand what your child is going through. It will help you both be less frustrated. 

How we at NYAN can help, from least-to-most hands on care:

Here is what one parent had to say about her Freshman daughter working with one of our RDs:

“When you send your 1st child off to college it’s an exciting time with a whole new chapter in life beginning.  Some things remain though, and as in my daughter’s case, it was an eating disorder that was manageable yet still lurking.  She asked one of her professors if she could please give her a referral for a dietician with some qualities that were essential to her.  She was referred to Libby.  Her first meeting with Libby happened to be on the same weekend I was also visiting so I was able to meet briefly with her at the end of my daughter’s appointment.   From the beginning Libby was accommodating and caring.   When my daughter’s disorder came back with a vengeance, things became very worrisome for me because I was no longer there to make sure she was okay . . . but Libby was.  She has been working closely with my daughter to keep her safe, to help her to recover and hopefully break free from the bondage of this disorder.   Libby keeps herself available to help my daughter everyday and has been a huge blessing in her life since she has been up in SLO.  My daughter knows she can go to her with any question or worry.  She looks forward to her appointments and completely trusts her.  They work hard together in the challenging times and rejoice together in the victories.  Libby has also kept in touch with me. The reality of how special Libby is hit me a couple months ago when the reality of my daughter’s condition and her body’s weakness during the flu season put her at risk for hospitalization.  After my initial fit of panic I composed myself and realized I actually had complete and total peace because I KNEW that Libby would take care of my daughter until I could get there.  

– Laura S. (not redacted)

Transitions are hard, but you can be prepared to help your child.

Libby Parker, MS, RD, CEDRD
behaviors to watch out for as your child goes off to college
behaviors to watch out for as your child goes off to college
behaviors to watch out for as your child goes off to college

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