Disordered Eating Warning Signs in College Students

by Amy M. Klimek, MA, LPC, Eating Disorder Program Coordinator, Timberline Knolls

The new college year is firmly underway. Thousands of young people have left home and started a whole new chapter in their lives. Although exciting and new, these first months can be highly taxing with new social networks, academics and living environment.

The experiences in these pressure-filled months can be a breeding ground for new habits, some valuable, others damaging. Disordered eating can develop long before being noticed by others and sometimes the person themselves. Awareness of disordered eating habits can help friends support those in need before it leads to life-threatening circumstances.

Obsessive or Judgmental Food Talk

Food exists to provide a measure of satisfaction, while fueling the human body. Food is meant to be part of a balanced life – it is not intended to be the measure of value. Obsessive talk about food — what is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, fat grams, calories, the newest attractive fad diet — indicates that an individual may be moving into an unhealthy, controlling relationship with food.  A verbal obsession can be an attempt to find “acceptance” of the new behaviors from others, in the effort to solidify approval for themselves. “I am now on a dairy-free, gluten-free, fat-free, food-free diet. I feel better already.” Or “I binged again last night; I really need to learn how to control myself.” Some of these comments are passive, while others are clear signs of an imminent eating disorder.

Negative Body Talk

College is nearly synonymous with the concept of change; one aspect of this change is the body.  Meeting new people comes with new comparisons some flexible and fleeting – others may elicit negative judgments and motive to “fit in.”  A rigid relationship with food combined with a negative body image can lead to isolation to avoid the conversations.

Behavior

It’s important to keep in mind that maladaptive behaviors can manifest in a number of ways, from one extreme to another, yet equally dangerous. For example, both restrictive eating or compulsive overeating may cause a student to withdraw, no longer attending parties or engaging with friends. Altered behavior can also extend to exercise: a student may feel the need to run three hours a day to burn calories, while another might spend inordinate hours in the gym to build excessive muscle mass.

Help with an Open Heart and Open Mind

If the warning signs are apparent, take action. Action comes in the form of honest, heart-felt, compassionate conversations. “I” statements are best used, as in “I have noticed that …” or “I care about you so much that when I see …” Also, serve as a role model by giving attention to a person’s character, not waistline. If you express concern over a friend losing weight, but are also relentlessly dieting, your words will lack meaning. It can help to become familiar with resources available on campus and if needed, be available to go to appointments to support your friend.