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!
Such a great post! I’m not in college, however I am a teacher and work with all women and this is the constant thinking and conversation in the lunch room. Love the mantra “this is not how I choose to take care of myself.” I will be using that when the talk gets ugly.
Thank you, Andrea! I think that mantra could definitely be helpful for combatting that kind of talk when you are with your co-workers.
Hannah M Liistro says
I love this post, Rachel!!! Thank you!
No thank you, Hannah!! <3
Ahh Rachel!! THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this! As a fellow college student, I totally relate to this and the struggle in trying to “swim upstream”. It is so encouraging to hear your heart and your advice! We got this, ladies!
You’re so welcome Sarah, thank you so much for reading!! <3
Emily at The We Files says
I am no longer in college but find that I have these conversations often. The “that is not the way I choose to care for myself” sentiment is incredibly valuable. Even if we’re only saying it internally when we see something diet culture-y or overhear a conversation, I think reminding ourselves of that is a powerful way to shape our own internal dialogue.
This kind of talk is unfortunately EVERYWHERE, and not just in college. But you’re so right, that reminder can definitely ground us and make us take a step back from the diet talk we here so regularly.
Rachel, I absolutely love this post and I 100% relate. Im a senior nutrition student as well and its so hard to constantly be around people who attach such a stigma to “good foods”, “bad foods”, and not being the perfect size. I could go on and on but this is just so well written~ good job, keep on writing!
Aww thank you so much Monica, I really appreciate it!! Yes, I’m sure as a fellow nutrition major you can definitely relate to people thinking that you demonize certain foods since you’re studying nutrition and that encounter many other stereotypes. I’m so glad you found this post helpful 🙂
Oh my goodness this is just what I needed to hear! I’m a college student, so this really hits home for me. I think my friends talk more on some days about wanting to change their bodies than boys (which is crazy haha). There’s constant talk about wanting to lose weight, or how “fat” one’s gotten since college because of excessive drinking. I struggle knowing what to say because 1) I don’t feel like I need to lose weight like they do and my weight has stayed pretty much the same since I was 15 and 2) I don’t want to say anything that could offend them or make them think they need to change their bodies, BUT there’s only so many times you can reassure a person before it starts to get old. I’ve also found that some girls tend to brag about not eating anything all day, which is crazy because undernourishing yourself is not something to be proud of. Generally speaking, I think in college many woman go through lots and lots of body changes, becoming more womanly, and it saddens me that so many girls want to change their body instead of embracing the changes. Anyway, I really loved this post and the insight you gave. Thank you!!
Thank you so much for reading, Carey! I think we have had the same exact experience in college – I can totally relate to the part where you said sometimes your friends talk about losing weight more than they talk about boys! You’re right, it is really sad that so many girls are preoccupied with changing their bodies at this stage of life, but all we can do is continue to be positive around those people and encourage them to be happy with who they are and what their bodies are in the present moment. I hope the strategies I gave help!
I love this! Diet talk is so common in college (and in other times of life, of course). As a student myself, I’m constantly trying to think of positive ways to encourage conversation that lifts us up and doesn’t perpetuate a diet mentality. Will definitely be putting some of these tips into practice!
Yay, so glad you liked it and think the strategies will be helpful to you!!
Emily Swanson says
I love your reminders of being gentle, being moderate about exercise, being the one who changes the conversation about intuitive eating and encouraging people that movement can be FUN, and that it doesn’t have to be about obsession or restriction. It’s such different refreshing thinking.
Thank you! Changing my relationship with exercise definitely didn’t happen overnight and is still very much a work in progress, but when I’m around my friends I definitely find these strategies to be helpful.
Love this post! Totally agree with the situations you mentioned and love how you deal with them!
Thank you so much, Rachel!!
Carly Thunberg says
This is a really great post- and one I needed right now. I have just gotten home from a study abroad trip where I made sure to reject the diet mentality and had an amazing time. There were a couple nights with dessert and alcohol and coming home I have, inevitably, gained a little bit of weight. This is really hard for me, since coming from a restrictive eating disorder I fear weight gain but still want to enjoy myself every now and again.
Is it possible to go out for some drinks every now and again without restricting yourself during the day and not gain weight? I’m still trying to find my body’s healthy set point, wherever that may be.