College students

Eating disorders among college students have sharply increased since 2021.

Sending young adults off to college can be anxiety-inducing for students and parents alike. Between newfound freedom, expanded workloads, reduced structure, academic competition, increased social comparison and the fact that they’re often miles away from home, life as an undergrad is largely uncharted territory.

Even before COVID-19 and the surge of associated mental health challenges, researchers revealed some startling insight on college students’ mental health.

One study, led by researchers at the University of Oxford, found one-third of college freshmen are coping with anxiety and depression at the start of the school year, and those numbers increase as the year progresses.

As if that weren’t enough, the college years also tend to intersect with the onset of most mental health conditions. Half of all cases begin by the age of 14 while 75% of lifetime mental illnesses present by the age of 24, according to research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. And some of the most dangerous and prevalent mental health conditions on college campuses are eating disorders.

The prevalence of eating disorders among college students was stable from 2009-2018, but increased sharply in 2021 for both women and men, according to a study published in Nutrients.

Navigating mental health disorders

Trying to help young adults navigate their first real taste of independence – especially if you’re miles apart – can be a daunting task for parents. The pandemic has exacerbated many mental health conditions, but it’s also helped make mental health awareness more of a household topic. Now, there are more resources for parents and students and less stigma attached to mental health diagnoses, so neither those with eating disorders nor their loved ones have to struggle alone.

Additionally, most people with eating disorders also struggle with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression or ADHD. Managing a mental health condition is rarely easy and doing so in an unfamiliar environment – often without a proper diagnosis – can be especially difficult. By becoming familiar with the early behavioral, emotional and physical warning signs of eating disorders, parents may be better able to spot students’ problematic relationships with food and make early intervention a priority before symptoms spiral out of control.

Signs of trouble

Recognizing a college student’s eating disorder can be particularly difficult, especially when they’re away from home attending school. Until it has progressed significantly, someone withan eating disorder may be quite effective at hiding it from others.

While different eating disorders present different symptoms, some common overarching signs that may suggest a problem include:

• Increased interest in dieting

• Excessive monitoring of food intake or weight

• Frequent negative comments about body image

• Poor eating habits, such as skipping meals or bingeing

• Rigid or excessive exercise schedules

• Significant weight loss or gain

• Social withdrawal

• Changes in mood or behavior

Early intervention

Early intervention can play a critical role in effective treatment of an eating disorder, but many families struggle with finding a treatment program that allows a college student to continue coursework while taking steps to improve health.

“A delay in eating disorder treatment can negatively impact the likelihood of recovery and increase the duration of the condition, needlessly prolonging suffering,” said Heather Russo, chief clinical officer for Alsana, a national eating recovery community that serves adult clients of all genders through in-person and virtual programs. “Parents of college students must be aware of the risks and triggers young adults face during these vulnerable years so they can help address issues and early warning signs as they arise.”

Learn more about eating disorder treatment options that can help your student develop a healthier relationship with food at