Let’s get real about eating in college

By Ava Dunwoody | Staff Writer

We’ve all heard of and probably feared the “Freshman 15” when we came into college — I know I did. But one thing I didn’t think I’d have to worry about is how my relationship with food would shift now that I was wholly responsible for what I ate.

When I got to school, I quickly learned that eating in college can be really difficult. For the first time many students are given complete control over their diet, and while this can cultivate healthy habits, it can also lead to a constant battle with a student and their newfound view of food.

About 31.1% of college freshmen will struggle with some sort of disordered eating. In many cases, these habits can develop into serious eating disorders. Studies have shown that up to 20% of college women and 10% of college men suffer from an eating disorder; both percentages are increasing.

“College is a period of development in which disordered eating is likely to arise, resurface, or worsen for many young men and women,” Claire Mysko, CEO of NEDA, said in a Healthline article.

Some of the general causes include increased stress levels from heavy workloads and the freedom to eat mass amounts of constantly available food. Another cause is often the feeling of newness and displacement that stems from the first time many students leave home.

While those causes may seem clear, I recently came across another one I hadn’t previously been aware of: cultural influence. I saw a post on Instagram entitled “The Normalization of Eating Disorder Culture in College” that explained how the college lifestyle often relates to the rising numbers of eating disorders.

One of the biggest contributions is the normalized use of harmful phrases and language surrounding eating, especially within the context of students ages 18-24. For example, it isn’t uncommon to hear students talk about “pulling trig” — the action of sticking one’s fingers down their throat to trigger vomiting, often in relation to over-drinking — to make themselves feel better.

Another commonly referred to concept is the idea of not eating before a night out to “have more fun.” There is also an unhealthy idea of “cancelling out” calories from a big night by not eating the next day, or skipping meals to look a certain way in an outfit and then binge eating after the event.

It’s true that much of this terminology relates to the overconsumption of alcohol, which, factually, can be a large part of college culture. However, the actual behaviors of binge eating, purging and unhealthy fasting occur in the college setting even apart from the presence of alcohol.

What struck me most after seeing this post on Instagram was that I had been at college for (almost) a full year and not once did I realize how problematic that language was. I was in a place where I constantly heard people talk about what they were and weren’t eating and the extreme measures they were taking to look a certain way; it seemed so normal to me that I didn’t even raise an eyebrow.

That’s exactly the problem — college culture promotes disordered eating so seamlessly that toxic habits develop before they are even recognized. This is not okay. We as college students need to be better at creating a space for us to learn how to develop healthy habits on our own, without the pressure formed by an unhealthy college view of what we need to put (or not put) in our bodies to have the lifestyle we want.

We can start to do this by eliminating the use of this harmful dialogue in casual settings, especially in jokes or when these behaviors aren’t actually taking place. Another way we can cultivate a better environment for healthy habits to form is to acknowledge that college culture is formed by college students (us!). In other words, we have to understand that we may be part of the problem.

If you don’t consider yourself to be struggling with eating in college, that’s awesome! That’s ultimately the goal many students are trying to reach. To help them, you can ask yourself if either your behavior or language matches any of the examples above to ensure you aren’t promoting the type of culture that makes it harder for students who are.

And if you are struggling, take a deep breath. You’re not alone — statistically, 4 out of every 10 people you meet might be dealing with something similar. One of the first steps to managing eating in college well is to recognize that the kind of culture you may be surrounded by actually isn’t normal and definitely isn’t healthy.

The next step would be to consider getting help. The Baylor Counseling Center is trained on disordered eating and offers assistance to every student, ranging from answering questions to finding treatment plans. To contact them, visit them on the second floor of the SLC or email them at Counseling_Center@baylor.edu. You can also contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline by calling 1-800-931-2237 or if you are in crisis, by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

Taking back the narrative of what is normal when it comes to eating in college is a responsibility we as students have, both for ourselves and for our peers. The four years we have here are incredibly vital to creating healthy habits that will last us beyond our time on campus, but it’s important to recognize that we are still learning. Eating in college is hard — that’s the truth. But there are ways to make it easier, and that starts with recognition and intentional shift of college culture.