There are some days that I wake up to birds singing and the morning sun peaking over the hill into my window, and my mind immediately wanders to every piece of food I consumed the day before.
On days like those, no matter how much I want to be, I will not be hungry.
On days like those, the only calories entering my body will be from black coffee, lemon Vitamin Water, and stick after stick of Extra Wintermint gum I keep in my backpack so that I can trick my body into thinking that I’m feeding it.
College campuses are breeding grounds for disordered eating behaviors and negative stigmas surrounding body image.
Between TikTok trends where influencers brag about replacing meals with iced coffee and warnings that scare incoming freshmen away from gaining the “freshman 15,” college students are taught to fear weight gain rather than understand it.
“Moderate weight gain between the ages of 18-23 is quite normal since this is the time that the adult body develops and settles at its natural ‘set point’ weight,” The University of Texas at Austin’s Health Services department said. “The term ‘Freshman 15’ suggests that students are likely to gain 15 pounds during their first year of college, but research shows that the typical weight gain during the freshman year is actually closer to 5 pounds or less. Fighting this natural shift in weight by restricting intake and/or dieting can lead to unwanted health consequences (for example: binge eating behaviors, chronic weight cycling, and disordered eating).”
Freshmen are not the only students restricting what they eat, and the “freshman 15” is not the only reason students choose to restrict their eating.
A common fad among college students — whether it be getting a bigger bang for your buck or compensating for the added calories of sugary drinks — is to restrict eating for as long as possible before drinking alcohol.
In a study looking at calorie restriction prior to alcohol consumption in college freshmen, 14% of the subjects reported restricting calories, with 6% reporting the behavior to avoid weight gain and 10% to enhance alcohol’s effect.
Popular collegiate groups and social networks such as accredited sports teams, dance teams and Greek life have been shown to increase unhealthy relationships with food and, in some instances, glorify disordered eating behavior.
“Research has revealed that women with higher BMIs have had negative experiences in their attempts to gain membership in certain sororities,” Crystal Karges, a master’s-level registered dietitian nutritionist, said in “College Life & Sororities: Too Much Pressure to be Beautiful and Thin?”
College athletes are more likely to develop eating disorders, especially in sports that encourage lean body types and sports teams that exist in the national spotlight.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that 35% of female and 10% of male college athletes were at risk for anorexia nervosa, while 58% of female and 38% of male college athletes were at risk for bulimia nervosa.
College students experience a wave of new behaviors that have never weighed on them before, such as the need for time management, social stress, alcohol and drug intake and a sudden sense of freedom away from parental figures. These things go hand-in-hand with developing a negative relationship with food.
“The main factor that makes eating normally hard for me is having the freedom to eat whatever I want due to no one else policing my diet,” sophomore Jake Moore said. “I definitely feel like I took advantage of that freshman year, and it’s been hard to get better at con- trolling my cravings when there’s no one but myself to say no.”
Key factors such as mental health and addictive tendencies can encourage a person to jump headfirst into dieting, eventually resulting in an eating disorder.
The National Eating Disorders Association found that 35% of dieting becomes obsessive, and 20 to 25% of those diets turn into eating disorders.
“I usually recommend all students stay away from fad diets as a general rule, because fad diets are short-term hacks to reach goals and never last,” Cory Eakins, nutrition coordinator at WKU, stated in an email. “How many people are still on the Atkins Diet or Liquid Diet? Or any fad diet for very long? Some are dangerous, extremely unhealthy, and cause weight gain and many other side effects once a person is on them for very long or goes off of them.”
Being on a college campus makes it that much easier to reach out and latch on to the unhealthy things that people say about food. Whether other students are aware of it or not, side comments about food can be the reason I skip a meal that day.
Recovery is recovery. Eating disorders do not just go away — they merely get easier to control.
Hearing students praise themselves and others for eating nothing more than a handful of snack crackers for a meal can make me question if my morning bagel with a side of fruit may have been too much.
Comments about how much weight someone lost can make me question if I should start weighing myself again.
Bragging about dinner being someone’s first meal of the day can make me nauseous enough that I no longer want the wrap that I just spent $10 on.
“I don’t really think I’ve ever felt like I was being judged by other people for what I was eating,” Moore said. “I am usually the one judging myself.”
For college-aged students, intuitive eating is the best option for developing healthy eating habits.
Intuitive eating is the pattern of eating in which a person simply listens to their body and eats when they are hungry and until they are full. It includes the understanding that as long as the human body consumes the main food groups and enough food then it will remain healthy.
However, this form of a healthy food relationship can be difficult to achieve on a college campus.
“Generally 3 meals a day every 3-5 hours and a snack or two between meals (if needed) is a good foundation,” Eakins stated. “1⁄2 the plate should be fruits/vegetables, 1⁄4 lean protein — turkey, chicken, fish, beef, low-fat dairy, 1⁄4 starch/whole grains — breads, pasta, rice, potatoes, etc.”
However, the meal-swipe value meals at on-campus restaurants do not offer this range of nutrition. To get this daily balance, a student could attempt to balance their plate inside of Fresh Foods, but even Fresh does not even always offer this range of nutrition. The best option would be to grocery shop, which may not be financially feasible for college students.
Options are available at restaurants on campus if a student is willing to spend their own money or meal plan dollars.
“I rarely go to Fresh and Hilltopper,” Moore said. “Burrito Bowl is a healthy option as well as Izze’s in the Garrett Food Court, but that’s a little too out of the way for me since I rarely have a reason to go up the Hill.”
Hilltopper Nutrition, located in the Health Services building shared with Graves Gilbert Clinic, offers resources to students that are struggling with these disordered eating patterns. One-on-one nutrition counseling, grocery store tours, cooking demos, disordered eating support, food allergy counseling, medical nutrition therapy and sports nutrition are among the resources that are offered by the on-campus nutritionists.
“The best way to serve that student is through a 1:1 nutrition counseling session,” Eakins stated in an email regarding the resources that are offered at WKU for students struggling with body image.
The journey from eating disorder to recovery is a long, beaten down path that is extremely hard to navigate.
I still find myself reaching for my pack of gum instead of food that will sustain my hunger. I still find myself leaning toward lower-calorie meals when my cravings beg for something more. I still find myself waking up with the hatred of food, but finding a way to eat regardless of that nagging disgust with my body and its need for food is how I know that I’m on that road that takes my mentality somewhere else.
I encourage the people around me to talk openly and positively about their eating habits. Don’t reward other students for eating one meal a day, for restrictive eating in order to get more drunk, for trying new diets that produce nausea and lightheadedness.
I encourage the people around me to find a friend to eat with, to find someone that also needs to eat a meal, to find someone that shares that inclination toward Burrito Bowl or Chick-Fil-A.
I encourage students on campus to find the time in their busy days to eat a bagel in the morning, to sit down with friends for lunch and to take time away from homework to enjoy a warm meal.
I encourage people that struggle with disordered eating and eating disorders to avoid counting and talking about calories, to be proud of every meal that is consumed, to give into cravings instead of restricting and bingeing, to be happy about the food that empowers the human body to do the incredible things that it has the potential to do.
If you think you are struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors, do not hesitate to get help:
National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: call or text (800) 931-2237
Hilltopper Nutrition: call (270) 745-6044 or visit HS 1074