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Diet Culture in College

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Dieting is the leading cause of eating disorders. Even though this fact has been proven time and time again, we still see glimpses of diet culture everywhere we go. Diet culture is especially prevalent on college campuses and throughout college communities. And for someone with a current or past eating disorder, moving away from home to a new campus and living environment riddled with triggering messages can be extremely traumatic. Even without the promotion of diet culture, the transition to college is inherently stressful, as young adults learn to live independently, make new friends, take challenging academic courses, and learn to balance school, work, extracurriculars, social obligations, and more. Unfortunately, we likely cannot eliminate diet culture from college campuses anytime soon. We can, however, learn to recognize it, acknowledge its harmful effects on the recovery process, and ignore it as best as possible.

Diet culture is promoted before even entering college, as incoming freshmen are taught to be wary of the “freshman fifteen.” We’ve probably all heard stories about relatives or friends going off to college and gaining some weight, and it’s always portrayed negatively. College students are encouraged to avoid the freshman fifteen through rigorous exercise and restrictive eating, and posters are hung throughout cafeterias and gyms warning students against weight gain. These messages fail to acknowledge the fact that our bodies continuously change throughout our lifetimes, and weight gain can be due to a number of factors that have nothing to do with starting college. Additionally, weight gain should not be demonized or equated with worsened health, as people can pursue and achieve health at any size through health-promoting behaviors (balanced diet, intuitive exercise, adequate sleep and hydration, social support, etc.).

Diet culture on campuses is very apparent in the dining halls. In recent years, dining halls have implemented stations that offer “healthier choices,” which usually include measly salads, yogurt parfaits, and fruit cups. Labeling these stations as “healthy” and “low-calorie” may cause students who eat sandwiches or hot meals from other areas of the dining hall to feel guilty about their own food choices. Many dining halls have also begun to provide calorie counts for all food being served, which can trigger those recovering from or currently engaging in disordered eating behaviors. The University of Maine, for example, provides menu cards for each food option in the dining hall (O'Riordan, 2020). Some foods have a “DineSmart” label, which signifies “smart” dining options that are under 600 calories, are low-fat, and do not contain any butter. This idea of “smart” food choices implies that all other choices are stupid or bad. This type of marketing can encourage students to categorize foods as good vs. bad, and to fear higher fat options, butter, and calories.

It is clear that college campuses promote diet culture and weight bias in both subtle and obvious ways. As philosophies like Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size continue to shift people’s perceptions of healthy bodies and relationships with food, we hope the messaging within college communities eventually aligns more with gentle nutrition and body diversity. In the meantime, we encourage college students to be aware of and to actively challenge diet culture on campus, and to seek professional help if struggling with disordered eating.

Written by Simone Gmuca, nutrition volunteer at Restore Family Therapy.

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