College is often a difficult time socially, and many students find themselves struggling to recover from putting on the “Freshman 15”.

A recent story in The Tennessean shares both a personal story and troubling statistics on the subject of eating disorders:

Katie McInnis grew up hearing what a “perfect” Nashville family she had.

“There was a lot I felt I had to live up to in terms of image,” says McInnis, now 32 and living in Bristol, Tenn. At 15, she was a cheerleader who ran track, and once during training, somebody remarked upon her “huge thighs.”

That triggered an 8-year battle with anorexia, when McInnis resisted eating in a desperate effort to be thin and perfect. “I thought, ‘I have to fix that. I can’t have anybody thinking I have big thighs.’ ”

McInnis hid her condition, running the shower to mask the sound of her vomiting and lying to her mother about meals. She duped counselors by water-loading and stuffing her pockets with coins before weigh-ins.

According to the story, the average age for the onset of anorexia and bulimia is between 18 and 20, which is exactly when most students go off to college.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 25 percent of college students have eating disorders. The same percent of college women report managing weight by binging and purging, says the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

The problem’s more widespread among women, but men aren’t immune. The association says

10 percent to 15 percent of anorexics and bulimics are male.

“You can pick them out,” McInnis said, of college students with eating problems. “I gravitated toward them. It’s almost this silent club.”

Broach subject carefully

Winter break is an opportunity for parents to notice changes in their college-age children. The real tip-off to an eating disorder isn’t their appearance, but rather mood and habits.

Counselors describe many signs of an eating disorder:

• Is the student depressed, anxious?

• Is he isolating himself?

• Does she seem obsessed with her appearance, size or food?

• Does he avoid eating with people, perhaps saying, “I ate earlier?”

• Is he scrutinizing food labels, counting calories?

• Is she so dissatisfied by her appearance or clothes that she avoids social activities?