No one talked much about mental health when I was preparing to go off to college. Instead, my generation heard scary stories about binge drinking, hazing, and what was then called “date rape.” Today’s teens still hear cautionary tales about those potential hazards, though the focus has shifted to broader discussions about substance use, campus safety, and sexual consent. What has changed dramatically is the way families, secondary schools, and colleges talk about mental health.
While we’ve come a long way in terms of destigmatizing anxiety and depression, other common mental health concerns still linger in the shadows. Eating disorders in particular pose a serious risk to college students, but shame, stereotypes, and misinformation too often get in the way of the important conversations we need to have with our teens.
Data shows the transition to college is a peak time of onset of eating disorders.
College can also catalyze relapse, so for those whose kids have an eating disorder history, these conversations take on a higher level of complexity and urgency.
It’s essential for parents to be aware of eating disorders and to talk openly about them. This is true even if you assume your child could never be at risk. Cultural myths about who gets eating disorders or what they “look like” give many folks a false sense of protection. Eating disorders can affect anyone-—any gender, any body size, any race.
While it’s impossible to prevent every eating disorder, parents can help reduce the risk for their kids. And bringing this tough topic into the light builds awareness of these illnesses and increases the odds of timely treatment.
These discussions can be uncomfortable, and many parents are unsure about how to approach the subject. Remember, just like with discussions about sex and drugs, it isn’t just one talk, but rather a series of ongoing conversations. If you could use some support, here are five main topic areas to cover with your new college student:
Eating Disorder Prevention in College
1. Listen to your teen’s perspective
Rather than launch into a lecture, start by asking your young adult why they think eating disorders are so prevalent among college students. Get their take on potential vulnerabilities specific to this age group. You’ll also be able to assess their understanding of eating disorders and what misconceptions they may have.
2. Bust myths about the “freshman fifteen”
If your teen hasn’t already brought up their concerns about freshman weight gain, now is your chance to address the tired jokes and fear-mongering around this popular phrase. The reality is that, even though the average weight gain among college students is much lower than fifteen pounds, everyone responds differently to this big life transition. Remind your teen that they are still growing and, despite cultural messages to the contrary, we don’t have to demonize weight gain.
3. Address the risks of dieting—even if they call it “healthy eating”
Make sure your kids know the facts. Whether it’s a lifestyle change, a cleanse, a reset, or a weight-loss app that insists it “isn’t a diet,” restricting calories and/or food groups is likely to disrupt one’s relationship with eating. In most cases, dieting (by any name) can lead to fixation and bingeing. In others, it can cause anxiety and increasing restriction. And while eating disorders can be triggered by many factors, dieting is the single biggest predictor: one in four people who diet will go on to develop a diagnosable eating disorder.
4. Talk through the college dining experience
Navigating a campus meal plan is nothing like wandering into the kitchen at home. Acknowledge how challenging this adjustment might be. Familiar foods may not always be available and buffet-style cafeterias can be overwhelming at first. Emphasize the importance of eating regularly. Skipping meals affects mood, sleep, and concentration—and can catalyze a disorder.
5. Learn about mental health care on campus
If your child—or their roommate, teammate, or friend—seems to be struggling with body image or their relationship with food or exercise, where would they turn? The RA? A coach? University health services? Finding out more about mental health care available on campus is a great opportunity to address any lingering stigma around mental health needs and to normalize asking for help.
As you prepare to send your new college student off to school, and when they return home for breaks, be sure to make time for shared meals as a family. Family meals are a powerful protective factor against many of the stressors and pressures young people face. And, perhaps most important, when we share a meal with our teens, we are modeling the role of food as more than just calories or a nutrient-delivery system. Eating with people we love helps create a sense of safety, belonging, and joy. And that’s what we all want our kids to experience in college—and beyond.
If you are concerned your child may be struggling with an eating disorder, you can find resources and support from NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association.