Exposed! Diet Culture on College Campuses

college age woman looking sad into camera holding phone in front of blue background

Written by Meaghan O’Riordan.

[This is the second installment of AllGo’s series on being fat in college. Previously we’ve discussed the “hidden curriculum” taught by poorly designed college desks. Today we’re discussing fat students’ experiences of college nutrition programs.]

For most college students, starting university also means living on their own for the first time. This can be a difficult time for young adults. They’re facing a new level of academic rigor. They’re in a new environment with different social structures (and let’s face it—new hierarchies). They’re learning to live independently from the people who raised them. It is one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. Everything can feel out of control.

Colleges do their best to help students manage this new stress. That’s why they have campus-wide student life programs and trained resident advisors in dorms. And more recently, colleges try to help students manage stress through “wellness” initiatives. A few of these programs encourage weight-neutral behavior changes like getting enough sleep and de-stressing through mindfulness practices or meditation, but far too many college-sponsored wellness programs rely on familiar, weight-focused tropes that position fat bodies as failures. These programs create unwelcoming and hostile environments for fat students, staff, and faculty.

The rise of wellness programs on college campuses mirror the rise of wellness culture in society more broadly. As consumers have become savvier about the dangers of dieting, traditional centerpieces of diet culture have been rebranded and marketed as “wellness” in an attempt to stay relevant. With the rise of mainstream body positivity over the past few years and overwhelming data that dieting doesn’t work in the long term, companies like Weight Watchers have had to change tactics to make their programming seem more focused on overall health (aka “wellness”) than on weight loss.

Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN of The Food Psych podcast calls these programs “The Wellness Diet Trap”. Many companies now refer to their weight-loss programming as a “lifestyle change” rather than a diet. But the behaviors these companies and products promote are basically the same as the now frowned upon fad diets of the past. When Weight Watchers rebranded and overhauled its points system, many foods — those supposedly good for “wellness” — suddenly became zero points. But points are just calories, and the calories in fruits and vegetables didn’t change. These companies have long known that diets don’t work and, since their customers are rapidly catching on, they’re now pretending to offer something much more nuanced and everlasting, something that, unlike fad diets of the past, will, supposedly, actually work to keep us “healthy” (read: thin) this time.

Body size and composition are still measures of success, even when their marketing eschews explicit diet language in favor of the more abstract “lifestyle changes”.

This wellness rhetoric is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And colleges have bought in. It is easy to be fooled by this messaging. Most people are interested in doing what will make us well, when “being well” means feeling good, feeling peaceful, or feeling strong. The sneaky trick of this marketing strategy though is that it simply obscures the fact that these companies are still equating “being well” with being thin or, at least, with not being fat. Body size and composition are still measures of success, even when their marketing eschews explicit diet language in favor of the more abstract “lifestyle changes”.

Fat woman shot from behind facing college building
Photo by Michael Poley

College-Age Women are at Significant Risk for Developing Eating Disorders

It’s troubling to see these “wellness” programs become a core part of college life, because college is when people, especially women, are most at risk to develop eating disorders. Eating disorders often develop when the need to feel control over a stressful environment is channeled through food restriction, over-exercise, and an unhealthy focus on body weight. According to a survey conducted by the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders typically begin between 18 and 21 years of age and between 10% and 20% of women and 4% to 10% of men in college suffer from an eating disorder.

According to a 2017 report in Leadership Exchange, 89% of college campuses offer at least one wellness program.  Many campuses require that first-year students live on campus, which means they likely participate in a dining plan. As they learn about these plans, they’re frequently provided with information about accompanying “wellness” programs and how they will be guided through managing their own health through exercise and nutrition now that they are away from home. Unfortunately, these programs suffer from the same issues as the rebranded “wellness diet”. They parrot incorrect information about the BMI, treat wellness as a “one-size-fits-all” solution, speak primarily to straight-sized and able-bodied students, and reinforce the idea that students cannot trust their bodies and to guide them to what will make them feel good and keep them truly well.

This can get messy fast. You’ll be hard pressed to find a college dining hall that does not provide some sort of measure of nutritional health for students, whether that is through providing calorie counts or a color coded system. Labeling the calories in foods may seem innocuous, but when these practices are examined, especially with care for how they affect plus-size students and students with eating disorders, it’s clear that they are far from benign.

The University of Georgia (UGA) uses a color coded system, which helpfully points out meatless and vegan options in its dining halls but also has a “heart healthy” designation. Why did UGA decide to point out heart healthy options as opposed to low carb foods or foods that fuel healthy brains? Many foods that are better for heart function may be worse for other health goals, and not all students need to eat “heart healthy” diets. But this label implies that “heart healthy” foods are inherently better than others and, as a result, students may gravitate toward them, even when other options may be a better fit for their specific health needs. And reaching for foods without the “heart healthy” designation will likely cause shame in any one who struggles with maintaining a positive body image.

It is certainly important for people with dietary or food allergies to be able to view specific nutritional information, and Boston College has a system that serves that purpose. It provides nutritional information for the meals in its dining halls online. Many college campuses use this method. Universities like UGA try to find ways to share this information more broadly than Boston College’s passive sharing of nutritional information online, but it can be difficult to know what to share and how to share it responsibly.

The DineSmart logo effectively categorizes foods as “good” or “bad” by using this “smart” language, which implies that meals without the logo are “stupid” choices.

The University of Maine’s DineSmart initiative provides menu cards for dining hall meal options that shares food allergens and whether or not the food is vegetarian or vegan. However, each menu card also may or may not have a DineSmart checkmark, which signifies that the food meets several criteria that make it a “smart” dining option. These criteria include: less than 600 calories, no trans-fat, not fried, inclusion of lean meats and protein, no heavy cream or butter, and an emphasis on whole grains. The DineSmart logo effectively categorizes foods as “good” or “bad” by using this “smart” language, which implies that meals without the logo are “stupid” choices.

The ways the above-mentioned colleges are identifying nutrition information for their students to promote “wellness” bear close resemblance to early signs of disordered eating. For example, one sign that a person might have an eating disorder is a refusal to eat certain foods or restricting whole categories of food (e.g., eating no fat). The University of Maine’s DineSmart program uses the checkmark logo specifically to guide students toward food that has been restricted by whole categories, such as no butter or heavy cream. In a Washington Post article, Christy Harrison pointed out that calorie counts posted on restaurant menus — per an FDA law — are “a potential trigger for anyone with disordered eating tendencies.”

Consider the harm of putting calorie counts and DineSmart logos next to dining hall meals for students at the age where they are most at risk for developing eating disorders. A study of 1,830 young adults published in March 2018 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found the people most likely to change their food choices in response to nutritional information being provided to them are those who engage in binge eating or unhealthy dieting behaviors, such as fasting, meal skipping, purging, or taking laxatives or diet pills. In other words, it could be said that the college students on the University of Maine’s campus most likely to make a choice about food based on the DineSmart logo are also those already engaged in disordered eating.

According to the Mayo Clinic, dieting is a leading cause of eating disorders. But college campuses promote diet programs and behaviors to their students under the guise of wellness, at precisely the age when their students are most vulnerable to developing these life-threatening disorders. The National Eating Disorders Association rightly points out that dieting is associated with higher rates of depression and health problems related to weight cycling. They recommend intuitive eating and the Health At Every Size™ paradigm as an alternative to diets for people looking to improve their health and overall well-being. But colleges do not promote these concepts in their wellness programming and opt for risk-laden approaches including meal-tracking and caloric restriction.

College campuses need to respect the line between providing necessary information about the ingredients of foods they serve and encouraging diets.

Defining and adhering to weight-neutral principles around food would certainly change things at Arizona State University, where the university’s primary food service contractor, Aramark, has partnered with the calorie-tracking app MyFitnessPal to provide nutritional information to students. While this is one way to provide information that may be necessary for students avoiding gluten or animal products, it also all-but-requires students to download and use an app that 1) advocates weight loss as the primary benefit of healthy eating and exercise; 2) interrupts the intuitive eating process; 3) serves manipulative ads about diet and weight loss products to a vulnerable population; and 4) has experienced a data breach that affected over 150 million users in the recent past. MyFitnessPal and apps like it are deeply embedded in diet culture, so when colleges make apps like these core to the experience of eating on the campuses, they implicitly tell students that a thin body is part of what makes them valuable members of their campus and society. ASU does provide an app called CampusDish specifically for its dining hall menus and refers to this app, rather than MyFitnessPal, on some parts of its site. But on it’s nutrition page it advocates downloading the app and “tracking” meals, a behavior most eating disorder professionals consider dangerous for college-age people.

All of the programs outlined above are well-documented on each university’s website. Most of the pages were written with an audience of students in mind and gave advice on how to choose healthy food more generally, whether on campus or not. It isn’t hard to find out how colleges present nutrition information on their campuses; in fact, they want applicants to find this information and are often proud of the efforts they have made to provide healthy food options and make it easy to find out which options are considered healthy and why. Many of the schools have nutrition programs and experts on campus, and they back up their programs with some research. What they fail to do, however, is interrogate how these programs exclude, marginalize, or even harm students — especially fat students — who already have eating disorders or are profoundly insecure about how they eat.

Far too few college campuses encourage students to trust their hunger and intuition. And far too many still provide nutrition information that encourages students to treat food as “good” or “bad”. This shouldn’t be a selling point to prospective students. It should be a warning sign.

How Should College Campuses Help Students Get & Stay Well?

  1. Stop discussing “lifestyle changes” and “diets” during university-supported programs. They’re triggering to students with eating disorders and they promote an obsession with food and exercise that is dangerous for college-aged women.
  2. Retire the concept of the “freshman fifteen”. Take those blog posts down. Remove mentions of it from new student orientation programs, and tell your staff to stop talking about it.
  3. Provide nutritional info that emphasizes the ingredients in the dishes you offer. If possible by law, don’t list calorie counts. Never label some foods as healthy and others as unhealthy. This information isn’t news and it just torments people who have histories of disordered eating.
  4. Help students learn how to listen to their bodies. Hire HAES-trained dieticians to speak with your students about intuitive eating and joyful movement. These skills will help students nourish their bodies in college and beyond.

About the Author

Meaghan O’Riordan is the Accessioning Archivist for the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives & Rare Book Library at Emory University. She holds bachelor’s degrees in creative writing and religious studies, as well as a Masters in Library Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Candler School of Theology at Emory, and her thesis is titled Our Bodies, Our Hells: Liberation Through the Religion of the Body Positive Movement (2019). Meaghan writes for AllGo because she believes it will have a big impact on people’s lived experience.

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