12/21/2011 11:35 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Parents Are First Line of Defense Against Eating Disorders in College Freshmen

First semester finals are wrapping up, and college freshmen across the country are flocking to planes, trains and automobiles to make the trip home for the holidays. Many young adults will bring with them bags of dirty laundry in need of washing or wacky roommates with no place else to go. Some parents, however, will find that their sons or daughters have returned home with something else altogether -- an eating disorder.

'Tis the season for family, friends and togetherness, but for many parents of college freshmen, winter break may reveal the development of an eating disorder. It's not uncommon for eating disorders to develop during the first semester of college. Dieting to avoid the "freshman 15," academic and social pressures and anxiety tied to living away from home for the first time can all trigger an eating disorder in men and women with a predisposition toward the illness. Particularly if they attend school far away from home, it can be easy for young adults to hide warning signs from their families during the first semester. Upon students' return home during winter break, some parents see the manifestations of the eating disorder, often by virtue of changes in physical appearance and emotional status, or displays of worrisome behaviors.

Understanding the most common warning signs of eating disorders in college students is critical to facilitating an appropriate intervention. Parents should be vigilant for five common indicators their son or daughter may have an eating disorder or could be at risk for developing one:

  1. Noticeable weight loss or weight gain since he or she entered college. It's not uncommon to lose or gain a few pounds during the adjustment to the newfound freedoms of life away from home. However, significant changes in weight can be a sign of underlying eating disordered thoughts and behaviors.
  2. Helping with the preparation of holiday meals but not eating them. Individuals with eating disorders often go to great lengths to hide their discomfort with and unhealthy patterns around food consumption, and are secretive about their eating habits. Often times, participation in food preparation, which can be a family ritual during the holidays, can seemingly appease concerned family members. ("Jane can't be anorexic -- she's making cookies!")
  3. Excessive exercise, even outdoors in poor winter weather conditions. Compulsive exercise often occurs alongside eating disorders, as the motivations underlying the excessive physical activity often stem from food-, body- or weight-related issues. Many over-exercisers will do so as a result of guilt or shame from just having eaten or binged, or to give themselves "permission" to eat.
  4. Withdrawal from family and friends and avoidance of holiday gatherings. Social isolation and depression commonly accompany eating disorders. Individuals struggling with these illnesses are likely to avoid social events, even if he or she hasn't seen friends or loved ones for months. Additionally, food tends to be a central theme of many holiday gatherings, and men and women with eating disorders often prefer to avoid food-centric situations.
  5. Discussing college in a "stressed out" or anxious manner, or avoiding conversations about school altogether. A certain level of stress related to the transition to college is healthy and is generally expected by parents and families. Excessive stress or anxiety -- or an outright refusal to discuss college -- can signal a lack of healthy coping mechanisms. In the absence of healthy ways to relieve stress and anxiety, some young adults turn to restricting or bingeing with food or compulsive over-exercising behaviors.

While many parents that recognize one, some or all of these eating disorders warning signs during the holiday break may be tempted to send their child back to school in the hopes the illness will "resolve itself," I strongly urge parents noticing any worrisome symptoms to seek treatment right away. Because eating disorders are complex illnesses with biological, psychological and sociological elements, young adults are unlikely to start eating or stop bingeing, purging or other compulsive behaviors on their own. A trained eating disorders professional -- including therapists, dietitians and physicians -- can conduct an eating disorders assessment to diagnose the disorder and prescribe an appropriate course of care. Many men and women can stay engaged in their lives while seeking outpatient eating disorders treatment, while others may need a higher level of care in order to experience full, happy lives.

Have questions? Confidentially chat live with a licensed eating disorders therapist here.