I’ve been thinking about nutrition a lot lately. Academic-wise, there is Michael Pollan’s visit to Stanford today (“In Defense of Food: The Omnivore’s Solution” 7:30 PM in Kresge), dining room discussions of recent articles in the New York Times about stigmas associated with subsidized public school lunches and (separately) “drunkorexia”. On campus, we have Stanford’s “Be Well” initiative, my post about the deceptively high caloric meals at the Axe & Palm, Manzanita’s Week of Wellness, and Mirror’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week events last week.
Stanford seems to present a health goal for its students and staff. Be Well. Get $150. But this message comes at students in a very confusing way:
Stanford Dining Halls serve healthy food! Stanford Dining halls serve pizza! Pizza has fewer calories than the pasta dish! You are required to eat at Stanford Dining if you live in a dorm, even if you have many specific dietary needs! Be well! Eat vegetables! Stanford Dining vegetables are covered in sticky sweet “sauce”! Salad bar vegetables are unripe! Eat from the salad bar if you are vegan! Eat fruit – we have the same bananas, apples, and oranges year-round, but if you rush to Branner Dining when it opens you might even get some grapes from the garnish on the brownie plate! Check out the nutritional content online! Eat the high calorie protein entrées because you have no other dining option! Be fit! Exercise! Our facilities are conveniently open all day long, so you can exercise anytime of the day . . . or multiple times a day . . . or go at times when your RA and roommates aren’t awake to notice . . .
Oh yeah, and don’t have an eating disorder. Love your body?
Perhaps I’m being cynical, but these messages are thrown around everywhere, and it scares me. I spoke on the closing panel for the Manzanita Week of Wellness mentioned above. The attendance was primarily staff interested in the primarily staff-targeted Be Well campaign. While mingling before the event, Stanford Dining catering services brought out a standard arrangement of fruits, cheese, crackers, crudités, and cookies. The staff and student presenters snacked while talking, but it seemed that half of the staff discussion was on the food. Comments like “Oh you’re having a cookie – that’s not necessarily wellness, is it?” and “That cheese looks amazing, but I can’t allow myself to have any!” dominated about half of the conversation.
As the staff socially supported one another in avoiding, or eating half of, the cheese, crackers, cookies, and fruit, I felt horrified. These are the sorts of comments and behaviors I recognize in people with eating disorders. These are the comments I was supposed to interrupt and educate about when I worked at a youth center. These comments are being passed down through the Stanford Be Well Initiative, to staff, to the student presenters on this panel. RFs were either making these comments, or implicitly supporting them with silence.
When Stanford freshmen arrive with their not-quite-developed prefrontal cortexes they don’t necessarily get the right tools to make good lifestyle patterns. Set loose into this mixed-messages world with little or no experience in meal planning, they get sucked into either the trap of desperately avoiding the Freshman 15, or into the trap of assuming cafeteria food is healthy and gaining weight – both resulting in skewed ideas of how to lose weight.
Perhaps the recent obsession with food discussion here and elsewhere is the result of factors like the end of Lent approaching, diet resolutions from the new year failing, people concerned about looking good in a bathing suit, etc. But I think it isn’t the result of a sudden change in personal attitude and behavior. People are becoming more and more comfortable talking about their personal dieting patterns. Is this increased discussion and social focus on how to eat better helping or hurting the prevalence of disordered eating?