“I’m not going to eat today, because I’m going out later.”

“Are you really going to eat all that?”

“I’m just having a salad because I don’t want to gain a freshman fifteen!”

All of these phrases and more are thrown around daily on college campuses. These words, often said by and to young women, may not seem terribly harmful on the surface, but contribute to a diet culture that harms so many students.

While some may argue that promoting diet culture is instilling healthy habits in college students, the reality is that the culture surrounding food on college campuses is toxic and creates an environment in which disordered eating is not only tolerated, but encouraged and rewarded. We need to push colleges to promote healthier habits to balance both the mental and physical health of their students.

Diet Culture

Diet culture is a system that values thinness over everything, at any cost. Some examples of diet culture in our everyday lives are deeming certain foods “guilt foods,” needing to justify what you’re eating, eliminating certain food groups without a medical rationale, and exercising as punishment for overindulging. These are things that we have been so conditioned to see as normal, that we do not recognize how backwards they are. No food is inherently “good” or “bad.” Calories are fuel for your body and brain. A balanced diet is essential to ensure that your body is functioning properly. Exercise is a way to stay healthy and relieve stress. Diet culture feeds us lies that weight is everything and that our value is determined by a number on a scale. These lies are toxic not only for our minds, but also for our bodies, and often can lead to disordered eating. Disordered eating is a range of behaviors that include frequent dieting, meal skipping, rituals surrounding food and exercise, guilt around eating, and a preoccupation with food, weight, and body image that negatively impacts one’s quality of life. Disordered eating is not the same as an eating disorder, but a study by the National Eating Disorders Association found about 20-25% of people participating in dieting develop an eating disorder.

Diet Culture on College Campuses

Diet culture can be especially pervasive on college campuses because of students having increased freedom and increased social pressures. College students are often experiencing freedom to eat when and what they want for the first time in their lives. This can form unhealthy habits because dining hall food is available all day and parents are not there to monitor what the student is eating. Additionally, social expectations to have a thin body can drive college students already dealing with underlying anxiety into an eating disorder. This pressure is exasperated for women joining Greek life. Often times, sororities judge potential members based on looks, so these potential members feel undue pressure to have a perfect body. In general, the ever-present culture of seeking the ideal body permeates college campuses and can drive students experiencing newfound independence into unhealthy spirals.

The Defense of Diet Culture

Defenders of diet culture argue that promoting diets is inherently good, as it encourages healthy choices. This is especially pertinent among college students, whose new independence creates a perfect opportunity to create good habits. After all, college is a common time to gain weight, so shouldn’t we ensure that college students are watching what they eat?

While we should certainly be promoting healthy habits to college students, diet culture does the opposite of this, often leaving students with an unhealthy relationship with food. However, there are ways to encourage healthy choices that do not play into diet culture and therefore are less psychologically harmful. Physical health is incredibly important, but we cannot prioritize it at the expense of mental health.

Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating is an alternative to diet culture that emphasizes listening to your own body for its cues on what, when, and how much you should eat. This mindset rejects the idea of an “ideal body” and encourages individuals to honor their hunger and power their bodies with nutritious food. It empowers you to respect your own body and to exercise, not for the sake of weight loss or calorie burning, but to get active. Overall, intuitive eating is a way to encourage healthier mindsets around food while still forming good habits. If we put more emphasis on these principles, we could reduce diet culture and disordered eating.

How Do College Campuses Need to Change?

College campuses must ditch diet culture and promote intuitive eating principles in their dining halls. They can do this through various initiatives such as posting signs around the dining halls and encouraging students to “eat the rainbow” rather than emphasizing the mindset of “salad good, pasta bad.” Both of these are encouraging students to eat vegetables, but the way the message is conveyed makes all the difference. Additionally, at many colleges, students are required to complete an alcohol education course before starting school. In the same way, colleges should mandate a course on combating diet culture and creating healthy habits. Finally, colleges need better resources for students suffering from eating disorders and must do a better job promoting these resources.

College is a time for students to begin their independent lives and to find themselves. Too many students are falling victim to a toxic culture that tells them that their value is in their weight. We must prioritize the mental and physical health of college students to better equip them for the future.