A Parent’s Guide to College Students and Eating Disorders

Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Treatment Center

Image of College Lecture Hall discussing College Students and Eating DisordersGoing to college is a milestone. It marks not just intellectual achievement, but social freedom and independence. College essentially defines who one is. This is why it is important for a parent to have a guide for college students and eating disorders.

However, achieving this goal is also accompanied with tremendous stress and anxiety to fulfil the associated hopes and expectations. This may elicit a variety of coping strategies, competition, self-judgments and insecurities.

College years present greater vulnerability for young women, and some young men, for developing eating disorders. Between 10 and 20 percent of college-aged women and 4 to 10 percent of college-aged men suffer from an eating disorder.

These first years away from home bring greater challenges for kids and as a parent, knowing what red flags to look for as concern for eating disorders and how to help if your child is at risk.

Past Issues Can Arise Again in a New Environment

Issues that have been carried within the person since childhood often come to the surface and are re-worked in college. It is not just new people, but new living situations and new routines as well. Without the usual structures and lack of supervision, the students are vulnerable to their own histories of anxiety, depression, fears of rejection and loneliness.

Peer pressure and the “diet culture”

Many students succumb to the pressures of the culture, the models in advertising and then they assume that to be extra-thin is the pathway to finding acceptance and attraction.

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The students may comfort themselves from this stress by the actions of:

  • Purging
  • Binging
  • Restricting food
  • Over-exercise
  • Excessive drinking
  • Drugs

Dieting is also a very prominent culture in young people, especially in today’s age and time where quick fixes are rampant. With busy schedules, students find it even harder to incorporate a healthy workout regimen so most rely on dieting to lose or maintain weight.

The National Eating Disorders Association reported that 35 percent of “normal” dieters continued to unhealthy dieting, which can include fad dieting, restricting fats, dairy or gluten, and more severe manifestations such as over-exercising, abusing laxatives, binging or purging. 20 to 25 percent of this population eventually develops an eating disorder.

College student

Common cultures such as body-shaming and bullying may force vulnerable students to perceive themselves as overweight and become generally unhappy with how they look.

The focus of their anxious insecurities is displaced by the obsession on their bodies and coping with a corruption of the role, value and symbol of food in their lives.

Eating Disorders Are Giving Them a Sense of “Control”

This is a time when college students are redefining themselves. This is serious business for them and often becomes more important than anything else. College students often talk about their eating disorder as giving them a sense of “control.”

They may not always realize it, but in recovery they can reflect back on their behaviors and say they thought, “this (eating disorder) is mine.” They have redefined the goal of college and lost a sense of how much time it takes to develop and understand themselves.

What to look for

Some important indicators of an onset of eating disorders include:

  • Serious weight loss, especially in a short period of time
  • An obsession with body image in terms of constantly worrying about weight, counting calories and avoiding “fattening” foods
  • Perfectionism regarding appearances and performance in school
  • Excessive exercising, clocking in long hours or refusing to skip even if sick
  • Skipping meals or parties just to avoid food
  • Hiding and lying to cover weight loss or to skip food

Don’t Be Afraid to Address the Problem

Families can help by not being afraid to address what they observe or to talk about these difficult subjects. All of this must be done and communicated in a caring and validating way, not a blaming and controlling manner.

Remember the student’s goal has been to be independent in its many variations and find peer acceptance. Actually, given this focus, the role of the family may need to change. The college students may not have the awareness of how or what to address in that matter.

This is a reminder that everyone in the family is affected and everyone can have a role in addressing and supporting the process of recovery.

McCall Dempsey from Southern Smash headshotFocus upon the patient’s health rather than appearance, support rather than blame, commit to support throughout the process of recovery and encourage them to get into treatment.

Engage college counseling services, outside professionals, online assisting communities and college administrative services to formulate a functional system of recovery of the student.

A New Perspective on the College Experience

What’s needed is a refocused and enlightened perspective of what the college students are living through. This includes discussions as well as an awareness of healthy and unhealthy boundaries, roles, messages, and soothing techniques to avoid the desperate spiraling into an eating disorder.

Counseling, psychotherapy (individual, family/couple) and/or special groups are among essential elements to help struggling students. The problems can be adjusted and directions changed, but it takes awareness, focus on underlying issues and emotions, support and learning healthier coping strategies.

It is an investment in the future and worth the effort for everyone.


1. Parents Guide to Eating Disorders in College. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://childmind.org/guide/guide-to-eating-disorders-in-college/

About Our Sponsor:

Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center provides quality, holistic care to women and adolescent girls ages 12 and older. We treat individuals struggling to overcome eating disorders, substance abuse, mood and anxiety disorders, trauma and post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), and co-occurring disorders. Our campus is located on 43 wooded acres just outside Chicago. This peaceful setting offers an ideal environment for women and girls to focus on recovery.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Reviewed & Updated on August 12, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Originally Published January 13, 2015, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Current version updated with statistics, recent research & video.