The holiday season brings out the urge to bake in even the most reluctant cook. But if your normally kitchen-averse kid suddenly begins baking up a storm after returning home from college, take notice. Excessive cooking or preoccupation with food may signal an eating disorder like anorexia.
'Many persons with eating disorders love to cook and will constantly cook and bake for their family or friends,' said Theresa Fassihi, PhD, a psychologist with the Eating Disorders Program at The Menninger Clinic in Houston. 'They may bake all day, but not eat a single thing themselves.'
She added that some persons with eating disorders may get vicarious pleasure from watching others eat, and enjoy being in control while others give in to the fattening foods.
While baking is a normal, enjoyable part of the holiday experience, it could be a warning flag if coupled with other signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and over exercising. While eating disorders occur more frequently in women, men may also develop an eating disorder. Nearly 10 million females and 1 million males are currently struggling with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
'College is a major life transition, and some young adults develop eating disorders during this time,' Dr. Fassihi said. 'They may be scared that they will gain the infamous 'Freshman 15,' they may be influenced by their roommates or peers who diet or they may feel pressure to be a certain weight to compete athletically.'
College kids may also believe choosing what to eat and not to eat gives them some sense of control over their new lives and makes them feel safe, Dr. Fassihi added.
Parents may notice changes in their college-aged child's eating behavior during the holiday season, because many students return home for more than a day or so for the first time since summer. Other signs of eating disorders include:
• Weight loss or change of weight -Watch for a sudden loss or gain. Persons with eating disorders commonly try to hide their weight loss by wearing baggy clothes. A person is considered anorexic if his or her body mass index (BMI) is 17.4 or less.
• Picky eating - Be wary if your child used to eat a variety of foods, but now will only eat some foods and not others, or refuses to eat any foods that aren't fat free.
• Sudden diet/decision to be a vegetarian - Diets and becoming a vegetarian provide a socially acceptable way for a person with an eating disorder to restrict his or her diet, and to reduce calories. Ask your child about the reasons he or she is going on a diet or becoming a vegetarian.
• Obsession with exercising - 'It should raise a red flag if your child gets anxious or scared if he or she has to skip a day of exercising,' Dr. Fassihi said.
• Frequent trips to the bathroom or showers - Young adults with bulimia often attempt to control the amount of calories they consume by purging after a big meal. They may make frequent trips to the bathroom to purge and turn the shower on to muffle their vomiting.
• Large amounts of food missing - Young adults who binge eat may eat normally when in the presence of others. When alone, they eat large quantities of food at one sitting—such as whole bags of cookies, tubs of ice cream and bags of chips. Missing food may the only clue.
• Change in personality - 'Eating disorders change your personality completely,' Dr. Fassihi said. 'A normally outgoing person becomes shy and withdrawn and may avoid social events or eating with family or friends.'
If you suspect an eating disorder, talk to your child about your concerns and encourage him or her to see an eating disorder specialist to be evaluated for an eating disorder. If you child denies a problem, emphasize the tremendous health risks of eating disorders including heart problems, permanent bone loss and death.
'Early intervention offers people with eating disorders the best prognosis,' Dr. Fassihi said. 'The majority of people who get treatment for eating disorders recover.'