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How Diet Culture Can Harm College Students’ Relationship With Food

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Silhouette of a person meditating with caption: Listen to your body, it's smarter than you.

Size indeed shouldn’t matter. College students come in with the sense that it does, a belief that is well-aligned with the values perpetuated by diet culture.

Diet culture is a product of socialized stigmas towards plus-sized people. It reduces people’s health to their body size and forces them to try to achieve an image of health according to society’s expectations.

Diet culture is especially harmful to college communities where body image issues are rampant and the dining halls don’t inspire intuitive eating habits. 

In competitive environments such as college campuses where deliverables are most valuable, there is added pressure to succeed in all areas; including excellent grades, professional opportunities, and a societally deemed attractive/healthy body.

This competitive environment perpetuates diet culture and feeds into the misconceived notions of healthy eating. These often manifest as restrictive diets such as keto diets and other fad diets that aren’t promoting wellness, but instead, actively producing a population ridden with eating disorders. 

Avocado toast, donuts, La Croix, Wine, Milk, Cheese burgers, Fried chicken, Macarons and other various dishes
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Due to long-held stigmas about weight gain and bigger bodies, our automated response usually tends to be to go on a diet.

This would require us to temporarily restrict and cut down on our daily caloric intake [or “daily calorie budget”] in order to shed some weight. One promising diet seems to be the ketogenic diet. The keto diet dictates a high fat intake with a very low intake of carbohydrates.

This seems to have good outcomes for those trying to avoid diseases such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer, as well as those trying to lose weight. Diets like these are possible to follow in a college dining hall, the issue lies in the intentions for deciding to go on a diet.

Actively deciding to restrict one’s nutritional intake to lose weight perpetuates an unhealthy relationship with food. This is especially true in college, where relationships with food can be fragile.

Eating is a time to fuel your body, spend time with family, and connect with your body and its needs. For students striving to follow society’s ideals, eating becomes a chore that needs to get done between classes.

For some, it becomes a coping mechanism during especially stressful weeks that often results in a binge eating cycle with all of the foods that you restricted yourself from eating. 

Reframing one’s relationship with food comes in handy when this cycle starts, especially in the fast-paced nature of college life. It is often very difficult to simply get started, but here are some tips to kick start the healing of your relationship with your body and how you feed it. 

  • In college, meals are had on a whim, and it is often very difficult to eat a balanced meal when you’re being stared down by delicious-looking pizza. One solution to this is premeditating all your meals in accordance with the dietary changes you want to make. Diets aren’t effective because they’re abrupt and unsustainable; by premeditating your meals in a journal, you allow yourself time to create delicious, balanced meals and different mixes and matches of foods from several stations in the dining hall. 
  • Get into the practice of intuitive eating. Intuitive eating warrants that one makes food choices without guilt, takes pleasure in eating, and listens to their body. Unlike diet culture, intuitive eating promotes a healthy relationship with food and one’s body. This requires carving out time to have meals, and it warrants patience in repairing one’s relationship with food.
  • Get to know your body and its nutritional needs. This may take a long time to get right, but it is an ongoing process that requires patience and dedication. A tangible way to do this is by keeping a food diary and documenting how you feel after each meal. This can help track foods that don’t sit well with your system. After tracking for a while, this system can even help inform your premeditated meals. Eventually, these practices will become habits and you will no longer need to document, and instead, it will feel like second nature to you.
  • The most important habit to develop is setting boundaries with the people in your life. Often times, people disguise their unsolicited comments about your diet or body with concern and the phrase, “I just want the best for you.” These are almost always prefaced with unsolicited advice on how to be slimmer or “healthier” as well as diet recommendations. Learning to set boundaries in these situations will not only benefit your journey towards a healthier relationship with food, but it will nurture your confidence and control over your body. These comments are prevalent after the first semester of college, where you have inevitably gained or lost weight, due to the abundant stressors in college. 

This journey towards loving your body enough to nurture it lovingly with food is very much a journey inward. Life is not about fitting into society’s unrealistic ideals on body image.

Dismantling your own stigmas and misconceptions on diets and nutrition as well as what an ‘ideal’ body looks like will be the hardest part. Practicing some of the habits mentioned above may prompt you to reconsider your current food habits and ideas of nutrition.