When your child goes to college, it’s normal to feel excited and worried. You might be concerned about them being away from home, getting enough sleep, making friends, and also about their mental health.
However, many parents don’t realize that this mental health crisis on college campuses includes eating disorders. These are serious mental illnesses that involve problems with how someone sees food, exercise, and their body size.
When students go to college, they’re more likely to develop an eating disorder, and a study from November 2022 shows that today’s students are even more at risk.
“Eating disorders are common and can seriously affect students’ physical health, mental health, social life, and how well they do in school,” explained Dr. Leslie Gee, a doctor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Some parents think their child won’t face an eating disorder, but that’s not true. “Anyone can be affected, no matter their gender or background,” said Lauren Muhlheim, a psychologist in Los Angeles.
As your family gets ready for college, it’s important to learn about these illnesses and talk openly about them. This can help protect your child as they start this new chapter. Here’s what you should know.
The ‘freshman 15’ fear
When your child starts college, they might hear about something called the “freshman 15,” which suggests they could gain 15 pounds during their first year at school.
If your child is worried about gaining weight or jokes about the freshman 15, it’s a chance to listen and connect with them.
It’s not a good idea to encourage diets, as they can lead to eating disorders. Instead, you can “acknowledge their worries and start a deeper conversation about unrealistic body ideals and diet trends,” said Toby Morris, a dietitian at the University of California, Berkeley.
The important thing is to talk to your child without judging them, so they feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you.
Whitney Trotter, an eating disorder specialist, suggests having open and honest conversations about how they feel about their body and why restrictive diets can be harmful. For families of color, it’s also good to talk about how different bodies experience the world due to cultural factors.
If you’re not sure how to respond to your child’s worries about weight, Toby Morris suggests this as a way to start the conversation: “I’m sorry you’re feeling concerned about that. I want you to enjoy college no matter your body size. Why do you think our society is so focused on being thin?”
The goal is for students to gain weight
Unlike what our society often suggests, college students are expected to gain weight because they are in a phase of important growth and development. This involves building stronger bones, growing their brains, and developing physically, according to Gee.
Parents can counter harmful messages about bodies. You can help your child by making it normal to “gain weight as bodies naturally change, instead of making them scared of it,” Muhlheim said.
One of the strongest things parents can do, although it might be difficult, is to show that all bodies are okay and to accept different body types themselves.
College food insecurity
Not just worries about how they look or trying diets, there are other things that can also affect how college students eat. Some students can’t always eat at dining halls that serve unlimited food three times a day.
“Many college students don’t always have enough food, and this can make eating problems more likely,” explained Sarah Minkow, a dietitian at the University of California, Berkeley.
Sometimes, the meal plans for dining halls only include two meals a day, and there might be no meals on weekends. Even if students have money, their campuses might not have enough places to buy food.
Parents can help by making sure their kids understand their meal plan and when they can eat at the dining hall. It’s also a good idea to plan for extra food by keeping snacks and familiar food in their dorm room, said Trotter. This can help keep them safe.