Happy Tuesday everyone! Cody was writing here a couple times a month and since she recently stepped back from this work to spend time with her family more, we are going to have some guests posts from other people over the next month or so until we hire a new fabulous RD. So I hope you learn a lot from these other amazing women. Today, we have Rachel, a future non-diet RD passionate about spreading this message. Enjoy!
Hey there, my name is Rachel, and I am a senior studying human nutrition and dietetics at the University of Maine in hopes of one day becoming a Registered Dietitian. I know many of you reading are college students or twenty-somethings, so today I hope I can offer a helpful perspective on eating intuitively and rejecting the diet mentality even though I am constantly surrounded by young people who are stuck in diet culture. Of course, diet culture is prevalent just about everywhere, but I have found it to be a fixation among college students. Maybe it’s because there’s a lot of pressure to be accepted and “fit in” and we’re all in that “figuring ourselves out” phase? Either way, it can be tough out there.
College is kind of a strange period because as students we’re busy with many things, but we also have lots of free time – and many college students use this down time to hang out with their friends. This short phase in our lives should be taken advantage of because it’s really the last chance we’ll have the freedom to enjoy seemingly endless amounts of time with people our own age before “real life” begins. However, I’ve found that it is sometimes a challenge to practice intuitive eating and letting go of the diet mentality when you are always around people who are very much still immersed in it. Anyone else with me?? But, with conscious and active effort, I believe it absolutely can be done. Here are some scenarios that I find myself in quite frequently and strategies I use to help navigate each one. I hope they are helpful for you too!
When the people you’re with are…
Having a Body-Shaming Conversation
It’s sad to say and to see, but reality at this point in time is that many college women equate thinness with beauty and are actively trying to change their bodies. Diet culture can be so compelling and that sucks. This can lead to endless conversations about wanting that “ideal” body. I’m sure you’ve heard a friend say something like, “I hate my stomach” or “I wish I had better looking arms.” It can be very easy to participate in this kind of talk and agree with your friends and say that you wish yours looked better, too. Instead of feeding into this negative talk, consider telling your friend that you like her just the way she is and think she is really _____ (insert compliment here that has nothing to do with her body) Or, if your friends comment negatively about someone else’s body, I would suggest either just not participating, or countering it by casually saying something like, “I think she/he looks fine the way she/he is, let’s talk about something more interesting.
Engaging in Exercise as a Way to Control Their Bodies: It’s common for college-age women to justify exercising as a means to ensure they don’t gain weight – I know I’ve heard people say that they only workout because they “know they should,” or because they think they need to “work off” a certain food they just ate. And, since we’re talking about college, I’ve heard many express feeling “gross” after a night of drinking and wanting to “make up for” the alcohol that was consumed. Those are hard places to be, fighting with all the “shoulds” but you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to exercise to “work off” something you just ate. You don’t have to exercise to earn your food. You don’t have to do a certain form of exercise because all your friends are doing it. Exercise for fun because you enjoy it, because it has the ability to enhance your health, makes you feel good, helps you sleep better, etc. But not because you need to micromanage your body size. You don’t need to exercise for aesthetic reasons or because you’re going to be eating an indulgent meal out or going drinking with your friends later. Instead, you could suggest to your friends a fun activity that incorporates movement but doesn’t necessary look like a “workout,” such as going for a hike, walk, or bike ride, trying out a dance class, or signing up for intramural sports. This takes the emphasis off exercising as a way to control our bodies and makes it more about just having fun with friends.
Placing Food Restrictions on Themselves:
I have witnessed one very prominent mentality among women in college: It is perceived that the less someone eats, the “better” they’re doing. We applaud more disciplined eating habits and smaller bodies at any expense. No matter what their mental/emotional/physical health might actually be. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of talk about the need to cut calories, give up dessert, eat less “junk food,” “watch what I eat,” etc. This kind of talk has become so rampant in our society that many people don’t even notice it anymore. We are all swimming in diet culture unless we consciously start swimming upstream. And when you being swimming upstream as an intuitive eater, this kind of talk begins sticking out like a sore thumb.
We can navigate around this diet talk by setting good examples for our friends. When one of the above phrases or talk of needing to restrict a certain food comes up in conversation, you can, of course, say that you are not going to participate in cutting out said food or restricting your calories. Repeat to yourself, “That is not how I choose to care for myself.” or whatever resonates with you. Others being stuck in the diet mentality doesn’t have to affect your own food choices. Remember you get to choose what thoughts you engage with. When your friends are on a diet or demonizing certain foods, it can be easy to go along with them and, for example, not order something when eating out with them for fear of being judged. I know it’s easier said than done, but you can’t fall into the trap of feeling like you should go along with others. Think about your values. Does participating help you live in line with your values? As a part of navigating YOUR intuitive eating journey, you have to learn to make food choices based on how you feel in the moment, what is important to YOU and learn to disengage from other’s actions so you aren’t easy influenced. This might feel impossible right now, but as you get more stable in your own beliefs around food, your body and exercise I promise this will get easier.
Shaming Themselves for Over-Indulging
I mentioned above that many college women (and our culture as a whole) believe that the less one eats, the better. Since restriction inevitably leads to bingeing, many college students often find themselves going far in the other direction and sometimes eating well past fullness after having restricted and deprived themselves of certain foods. A far too common example of this among college students is when people who restricted themselves during the day in anticipation of “drinking their calories” end up diving head first into a whole pizza or other decadent food after a night out. This makes total sense given alcohol’s effect on blood sugar and how restriction works – if you don’t allow yourself foods sober, of course you’ll have some stressful eating experiences when your inhibitions are down from alcohol.
Overeating can then lead to feelings of guilt and shame and then, unfortunately, more body-shaming conversations and subsequent restriction. If you are witnessing your friends beating themselves up for over-indulging, let them know that it is okay and that it is a natural part of being human. Compassion is key. Overeating happens to all of us sometimes (it’s normal!) and the best thing we can do is encourage the person to not dwell on the experience but instead learn from it and move forward. It would also be helpful to encourage the person to not restrict what they eat to “make up for the damage.” Restricting only puts your body in a physiologically vulnerable place so you’re more likely to binge or have a stressful eating experience down the road. So, next time you or your friends over-indulge, don’t beat yourself up about it, don’t feel like you now have to restrict, and just remember that it happens sometimes – nobody is perfect. You’re human. It’s okay.
As a woman in college myself, I would be lying if I said it were easy to navigate intuitive eating and rejecting the diet mentality. It does take concerted effort to decide to not participate in diet culture. A lot of effort. So it’s okay if it feels hard and never ending at times. While it would be easier to just go along with your friends sometimes, remember that you are looking out for yourself and for others when you actively choose to combat the diet mentality and support others in intuitive eating. Sometimes it can feel like diet culture is too big and powerful for us to overcome, but each person who decides to not participate is definitely making a difference, especially in the college setting where this mentality is so rampant. So keep on keeping on!