This article will include an in-depth discussion about eating disorders and related content, readers should be advised.
It takes about 30 seconds of Google researching to figure out just how widespread disordered eating habits and unhealthy thoughts about food really are. In a study done in 2008, scientists found that three in four American women have unhealthy thoughts and feelings, if not also behaviors, with regard to food. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), 91 percent of women included in a college campus survey admitted to “controlling their weight through dieting.” According to a nationaleatingdisorders.org study, males represent 25 percent of anorexia nervosa cases and their cases are often diagnosed later, putting them at a higher risk of death. The widespread assumption that males don’t suffer from eating disorders due to the overall gender disparity between men and women who report weight dissatisfaction likely influences this reality. Also, there’s certainly no shortage of people who are not considered medically overweight but want to lose weight anyway. It’s probably more than I or any reader of this article might know about because some people keep these sentiments, ideations and behaviors private. It’s worth noting, though, that the topic of disordered eating often only covers struggling women, and the supportive notion of body positivity doesn’t always feel like it extends to men.
So if we know that this topic is as sensitive as it is, why does it seem like higher education is so tone-deaf about it? Why was I required to track my calorie intake of everything I ate and drank in multiple health and wellness studies courses at Binghamton University? In my experience, there was no mention of the dangers of this kind of behavior before the assignment started, or even after. For instructors of these courses, I think providing an alternative to this assignment and acknowledging that this type of assignment can be triggering for certain students would be beneficial. This is especially relevant for students who have already tracked their calories in a similar way before and for whom this activity has already damaged their relationship with eating. These students have experienced what they already would have from this assignment, so there’s no point in reliving that trauma for a grade. Other options could include a research paper, teaching more specific literature that exists within the scope of the course or giving students more experience with academic research and writing. This would allow them to avoid reliving the habits that, for many, gave them a damaging relationship with food in the first place.
If it were up to me, I’d honestly scrap the assignment altogether. While I recognize the importance of knowing how many calories are in what one eats on a regular basis, I think the harm outweighs the benefit. I have thankfully never been diagnosed with any eating disorders, but I’ve struggled with my relationship with eating. I found it uncomfortable to have to record this kind of information at all, and even worse to have to submit it for someone else to read. It’s not triggering for me because I haven’t experienced an eating disorder, but this discomfort is a glimpse of why it triggers others.
There’s so much to be taught about nutrition, and this could be expanded upon in these classes by being more inclusive. For example, in my nutrition class, we learned about nutrition for pregnancy and touched on food deserts and food insecurity. I think these topics should be discussed further, and our students could benefit from an overview of nutrition in different cultural diets. For example, vegetarianism and veganism as practiced in certain religions and cultures could be included, as well as the popular foods of different cultures and their macronutrient breakdowns. There could also be a deeper conversation about the slippery slope of disordered eating and why we need to watch out for ourselves when learning about what we eat.
It’s important to me that I don’t minimize the struggles of others in explaining why I find this difficult, but this is not a black and white situation. One doesn’t wake up with disordered eating habits — it often takes years of negative self-talk and influences or poor education on eating to put someone in these positions. That’s not to say it can’t happen without those things, but those first steps toward that mindset can be a bit difficult to recognize. It can seem like we’re just trying to focus on our health, but then we hyper-focus on our bodies or our habits, which can lead to disordered eating. Moreover, we often don’t deal with this sort of thing very well because we don’t give those who are struggling a space to freely communicate this. Those who are struggling often don’t get much support when they share how they feel — how often is an “I feel so fat” comment followed by an “Ugh, me too” comment and not something supportive or helpful?
When I say “disordered eating,” I’m referring to a lot of things, namely anorexia nervosa, bulimia, orthorexia, binge eating disorder and others. I’m also talking about the thoughts, ideations and behaviors that may or may not lead to these disorders as well, because those who are struggling at a non-diagnosable level still need support. I think it’s even more difficult to pinpoint exactly when these behaviors start because an unhealthy relationship with food and/or fitness can look like a reclaiming of one’s health. For example, intermittent fasting can be healthy if a registered dietitian advises someone to practice it with the proper information, but it can also be an extremely unhealthy gateway to fasting and, ultimately, not nourishing one’s body. Fasted cardio can be healthy if a professional counsels one to work out in that way, but it can easily lend itself to a mindset in which one believes they are not entitled to food until they exercise. Certain restrictive lifestyles are glorified when they are sometimes lacking nutrition and damaging to both physical and mental health.
My point in saying this is that this mindset is everywhere, and we should not perpetuate it further by normalizing it in the classroom. We should not make it an unavoidable discussion and grade how healthy one is eating as we would a pop quiz or final exam. Further, we should actively seek out those who might be struggling and use our resources as a university to help them.
Ariel Wajnrajch is a sophomore majoring in psychology.