College, COVID, and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know

College, COVID, and Eating Disorders [Image description: woman with mask in front of computer]
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

As I’ve talked about in depth here, the transition to college away from home is challenging for most young adults. It is especially fraught for young adults with eating disorders. In that article I provided a College Readiness Checklist for students who are either considering their first move away from home after a history of an eating disorder or returning to college after being diagnosed with an eating disorder. I have learned the hard way. I’ve witnessed the heartbreaking reality of what can happen to students who go away before they’re ready. I may seem stringent, but we’re talking about one of the most deadly mental illnesses and this is your child’s life and future.

I was recently asked whether the same standards should apply in the current climate. I replied that I thought the standards should actually be more stringent given the pandemic. This has been on my mind all summer; now, I am prepared to sound the alarm.

Students with eating disorders of all types—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)—often have a narrow range of foods they are comfortable eating. They often struggle with flexibility.

The pandemic has thrown a wrench—really, a whole toolbox—into the college experience. Among the changes this fall is that most dining halls have pivoted to prepackaged meals. This will be an added challenge for students with eating disorders. Students have already reported that the results are long lines as they wait for food, far fewer food choices, no option to portion their meals themselves, and no option to mix and match. These prepackaged meals may be insufficient in nutrients or energy, especially for students in recovery who have high energy needs.

Add to this the experience of students who are quarantining either due to outbreak or exposure, or as required by the college upon return to campus as a preventative measure.  Most are in dorm rooms without access to a kitchen. Social media has exploded with unfortunate food stories:

These stories are garnering attention, people find it laughable, and the colleges are receiving criticism, but I can only think about how the students with eating disorders are impacted.

Eating disorder recovery requires eating at regular intervals and meals sufficient to maintain recovery. Even a small negative energy balance can increase the risk for relapse in individuals with anorexia nervosa or increase the risk of binge eating for those with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder.

Students who are not very stable in their recovery may not be able to handle the current climate. They may not be able to seek additional food if portions are too small. People early in recovery often experience shame about hunger. It could be very triggering to receive portions that are not satisfying. Patients with eating disorders may not be able to advocate for their nutritional needs or do the problem-solving required to make sure the meals are sufficient. Finally, receiving an entire day’s worth of meals at the end of the day would be a natural trigger for those who have struggled with binge eating—or for most people!

Add to this the stress of academics and social issues and the uncertainty about the rest of the semester, and you have a perfect storm for relapse.

If you have any doubts about whether your student may be ready for college under these challenging circumstances, I strongly encourage you to consider keeping them home this semester. If there ever was a time to err on the side of caution, it is now.

With most classes online and social options at college significantly limited, this provides a unique opportunity to keep them home so they have more recovery time under their belt before they have to face such eating challenges. They will not be missing much, and you can work on strengthening recovery so that when the pandemic is over they can return as a healthier student capable of embracing the full college experience. You can use my article—which outlines steps to prepare a student for the challenges of navigating recovery in college— to make sure they are fully prepared when the time is right.