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What To Do If You Notice Eating Disorder “Red Flags” in Your College Student

Article Contributed By: Kathleen MacDonald and Becky Henry, CPCC

9833244473_b69951e4af_zIn a previous article for Eating Disorder Hope, Becky addressed, “How Parents Can Support their Child at College Who is Struggling with an Eating Disorder”. In this article, Becky Henry and Kathleen MacDonald identify potential red flag warning signs that your college student might be developing, or have, an eating disorder.

Becky and Kathleen bring over 30 years of combined personal and professional experience with eating disorders, as: parent, recovered person, someone who suffered an eating disorder while in college, coach and policy and insurance expert.

There’s Too Much Pressure Not to Gain the “Freshman 15

Most college students have been primed on how not to gain the “freshman 15.” But they likely haven’t been primed on just how dangerous it can be to try and avoid gaining those 15 pounds as a freshman, or primed on the red flag warning signs of an eating disorder.

We want to help you feel capable of helping your child, and give you motivation to take action if you notice any of the following “red flags”:

  • Isolating from friends and family, or events
  • Dieting and/or skipping meals
  • Cutting
  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • More prominent or obsessive exercising
  • Becoming very secretive and irritable, especially about food or meals

When your child comes home for their first break (ie: fall, winter), you notice a change in:

  • Weight that you haven’t noticed before (this could be weight gain or loss)
  • Abrasion on knuckles (a result of self-induced vomiting)
  • Use of laxatives, diet pills, diuretics, self-induced vomiting, enemas
  • Trips to the bathroom during, or immediately following, meals
  • Increasing criticism of their body or others’ bodies
  • Increased talk about food, weight, calories, fat, etc.
  • Complaining of being cold (especially fingers and toes)
  • Increased consumption of diet soda or water
  • Increased perfectionism
  • Rules and rituals around food (i.e.: cutting out a food group)
  • Discomfort in fitted clothes, wearing loose clothing

What happens if you notice a few, or more, of these red flags? Your heart rate might increase and your mind might race with thoughts like, “Oh my gosh, does my child have an eating disorder?!”

But we encourage you to take a deep breath. Many of the signs and symptoms listed above can, unfortunately, be typical of a college student experimenting with behaviors that they witnessed by their peers, and they might not indicate a full blown eating disorder.

Still, these are dangerous behaviors and signs that need to be monitored closely, especially if your child is predisposed to developing an eating disorder.

How do you help?

Girl_suffering_form_anxietyYou’re already doing something right – reading recent articles from respected leaders in the eating disorders field. We encourage you to be careful of older, outdated information on eating disorders, as it is inaccurate and not based on current research.

For example, in the past, the dieting that so many college students engage in to avoid the media-devised “freshman 15” was seen as “a phase” and something all women did. Now we know that dieting is not normal and that it can evolve quickly and be the precursor to developing an eating disorder.

Talk with Your Loved One

Next, you want to talk with your loved one. Share your concerns and what you have noticed. Be direct and compassionate. Listen, but do not let them brush off your concerns with classic phrases such as, “I’m fine!” or, “There’s nothing to worry about, just look at me!”

Those phrases deserve further conversation. Ask what they mean by “fine” and express to them what you do not think is “fine” about their behaviors, mood and symptoms.

Don’t Just Say, Be An Example

Be mindful not to “kvetch” with your son or daughter about your weight-loss goals, body dissatisfaction and/or suggest dieting together. Too often these things are seen as a sign that, “See, if mom is doing it, then it must be OK. I must be fine.”

Planning For Treatment If Needed

Then, you’ll want a plan in place for “next steps” if indeed you discover that your loved one is exhibiting signs of an eating disorder (trust your gut). You need to get your student to an eating disorder professional ASAP. You can find great resources here on EDH and on our websites at www.eatingdisorderscoalition.org and www.eatingdisorderfamilysupport.com.

During this process, remember that boundaries are a beautiful thing. Boundaries are not mean or uncaring, (though it may feel that way when you’re learning them). Sometimes boundaries include invoking “tough-love.”

You may need to dig deep (and find a strength you didn’t know you had) in order to set some tough-love in place and help motivate your student to participate in seeking an evaluation, and potentially stay home from school to receive treatment, but you can do it.

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Help Is Available

These are just a few tips for how to recognize an eating disorder and how to get help for your loved one if they are suffering.

Remember, the better informed you are, the better you can help your loved one. Remember, eating disorders are serious, but there is hope. People can and do recover, and treatment works.

There is a wide-range of treatment options available, including on college campuses, so please know you are not alone and help is available.

Most of all we encourage you to remember:

  • If your loved one isn’t healthy enough to return to college, it’s OK –there is NO harm in taking time off for treatment.
  • College will be there, waiting for you to pay tuition, when your loved one is healthy.
  • If your college student had cancer, a semester (or two, or five) off in order for them to receive chemotherapy wouldn’t likely cause you to think twice; in fact you’d likely view treatment as “urgent.”

A semester (or two, or five) off, in order for your loved one to get treatment for a dangerous and all-too-often deadly eating disorder, is just as urgent.


Contributing Authors:

National Award-winning author, Becky Henry, CPCC, Founder of HOPE Network LLC and Infinite Hope Publishing is a Certified Professional Coach and international speaker.

As an unwilling expert, Becky found a process to reclaim joy, she provides support and coaches eating disorders caregivers through this process. Her vision is to see health care organizations fully include families in eating disorders research and treatment.

Health Care associations and organizations get a dynamic, interactive, entertaining speaker who gives health-care professionals a peek behind the curtains into what caregiving a child with an eating disorder is really like. When Becky speaks alongside professional colleagues, CEU’s are available. This gives your staff the clinical alongside the real life aspects of eating disorders.

Audiences have said: “You really get it!”, “I had no idea how complex these illnesses are!”, “Now I know what red flags to look for in patients and how to include their families in treatment.” Speaking Topics Include:

Including families in eating disorders treatment.
Eating Disorder Red Flags & importance of early diagnosis.
How to talk with parents when you suspect an eating disorder.

Memberships: International Coach Federation (on Minnesota Chapter Board), Board member; F.E.A.S.T.(Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders), and Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA).

Book Becky here: 952-451-5663, [email protected], www.eatingdisorderfamilysupport.com

Kathleen MacDonald is the Policy & Communications Director at the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action (EDC) in Washington, DC. Kathleen fully recovered from an 18 year-long battle with dieting, bulimia, anorexia and body image issues.

Kathleen has worked in the field of eating disorders since 2005, including as a Patient Advocate and Education & Prevention Coordinator at the Gail R. Schoenbach F.R.E.E.D. Foundation, as Policy Assistant at the EDC and as Health Insurance Advocate at Kantor & Kantor. Kathleen was a lead expert in developing both the Education and Prevention and the Patient Advocacy sections of FREED Act –The Federal Response to Eliminating Eating Disorders (HR 4341).

Some of Kathleen’s presentation experience includes: The F.R.E.E.D. Foundation College Speaking Tour; NEDA, BEDA, F.E.A.S.T, and Renfrew conferences; several treatment centers; Congressional briefings; National Policy Conferences on Eating Disorders on Eating Disorders Legislation in Washington, D.C.; and several media appearances. Kathleen lives with her two English Setters, and gaggle of cats, in the DC area.

You can reach Kathleen at: [email protected]

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