It’s no secret that most of the community values excellence in academics and athletics but what about personally, emotionally, and physically? “Wellness” has become a topic of interest across the country and especially at DA but the idea is often taken to the extreme on campus, leading to an unrealistic body image.
The term “eating disorder” is often associated with the image of an overly thin teenage girl obsessed with their weight. I’d like to change the verbiage to discuss “disordered eating” which includes a spectrum of behaviors that affects the majority of the population at one time or another. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines disordered eating as a way to describe a range of irregular eating behaviors that may warrant a diagnosis of a specific eating disorder. These can include many normalized behaviors such as dieting (cleanse, anyone?), intentional or unintentional meal skipping, food rituals, and preoccupation with exercise in addition to the classic psychological symptoms of a diagnosed eating disorder.
Health Center staff agree that there has been an influx of both disordered eating and eating disorder diagnoses on campus in the past year. I have personally had students comment on the pressure to be “Deerfield thin,” struggling to maintain a certain fitness level, or eat “cleanly.” This term has always bothered me as it infers that “dirty eating,” exists which only gives power to unhealthy notions of food. Due to the influx of social media and availability of non-evidence-based nutrition information, these ideas are more widespread. In the media, foods are often labeled as “good” or “bad,” whereas a more healthful approach would be to consider food on a spectrum of nutritional value.
Many eating and fitness standards on campus have become normalized and are often only recognizable outside of the Deerfield bubble. In the real world, “regular exercise” does not have to constitute 3 hours a day, 6 days a week and a “healthy weight” does not necessarily translate to a clothing size. Moderate activity for an hour 3-5 times a week and eating (mostly) healthy will help your body find the weight you run most efficiently at and avoid health risks.
This brings me to eating disorders on campus. On one end of the spectrum is orthorexia, a relatively new term that describes an unhealthy obsession with eating “cleanly” causing severe restriction of intake and variety, fear of certain foods, and malnutrition. On the other end is the most common eating disorder in the country: binge eating disorder (BED). Within the last year, I have seen an increase in cases of students or faculty reporting regular binge eating. Binging is characterized by excessive eating in one sitting, often followed by feelings of guilt, shame, and isolation. There’s a difference between conscious overeating on occasion (holidays, birthdays, parties), and feeling an uncontrollable physical and emotional urge to overeat on a regular basis. The cycle of BED often begins with negative emotions associated with food. Chronic underfueling then causes the body to respond by increasing hunger hormones. These more intensified appetite signals lead to overeating, characteristically of highly palatable food choices such as high sugar, high calorie options like ice cream, baked good, chips, etc. Now, prompt the associated negative emotions triggering the cycle to repeat. The cure to avoiding the restrict/binge cycle is to minimize unhealthy food and eating “rules” and conquer emotional triggers (easier said than done). With the variety and availability of “unhealthy” food, it can be more of a struggle to manage BED on campus.
To this end, I’d like to discuss how to navigate eating on campus. Desserts and baked goods are offered daily. There are also hearty options such as alfredo, pizza, and french fries regularly. These options are not meant to encourage unhealthy eating habits but instead to help teach moderation and flexibility with eating. A study published in the 2019 Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied showed that people consistently chose healthier meals and consumed fewer calories when they were allowed to add a dessert to their meal. The sole selection of a dessert was enough to trigger a change in the foods and portions of their meals. Furthermore, newer dietetic practices suggest that serving dessert at the same time as a meal, particularly with children, can encourage balance. Ultimately, children of these studies were found to have less occasions of overeating sweets when offered outside the home.
This idea of normalizing dessert is meant to minimize overeating. In my experience, I’ve found that this theory can be difficult to practice if you weren’t raised in this manner and adjusting to it can take time. The hope for students is that by learning these skills now, college and adult life will be easier to navigate as it can bring even more availability of food and emotional triggers.
So, I think it’s imperative to look at our definition of “healthy” based on individual needs. In addition to having distinct metabolic rates, medication use, food allergies, medical dietary needs, unhealthy body image or body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety and/or other mental illnesses can alter needs. Each of these factors are not only significant, but are not outwardly visible which is why having a blanket idea of acceptable eating habits is dangerous.
It also seems the root of many problems with our eating culture is judgement. When it comes to eating and exercise I encourage everyone I see to stay in their own lane and to focus on what being healthy means to them. Healthy eating should be individual and ever-changing. With this thought, the hope going forward is not only to be more accepting of the choices of others but recognize that everyone starts from a different place and has to navigate their own health journey.