Saturday, September 19, 2009

Struggling with the "freshmen fifteen"

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Earlier this week, in the midst of the chaos of back-to-school obligations, I arrived at dinner and realized that I had literally forgotten to eat all day. Sitting at a table full of friends, I looked down at my plate full of salad and vegetarian lasagna and almost cried with joy at the thought of food. The sense of pure, unmitigated gratitude that I felt was unusual for me. I love food, but like most women and, increasingly, men, I have a fairly twisted relationship with my body and the foods that I use to nourish it. Two years ago, for example, I was so hell-bent on avoiding the freshmen fifteen that I ate nothing but salad, Diet Coke and yogurt (hardly a balanced diet) for a period of months, and when I finally made peace with my body weight and shape, I stopped thinking about what I was eating altogether, and suddenly found myself ten pounds heavier and back into a cycle of self-loathing, occasional fasting, and constant guilt when I didn't visit the gym.

College does not make it easy for people who struggle with issues with food. Eating disorders are rampant, but rarely discussed. We're all familiar with the glance to a friend's plate, to see whether she is eating macaroni and cheese or salad, and the implicit self-judgment that follows, and we recognize the man or woman who is always on the treadmill at the gym, desperately trying to erase every scrap of body fat (Courtney Martin describes this eloquently in her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters). Freshmen year is one of the most challenging times for people who have struggled with body issues, because it is full of adjustment and confusion. If you decide to start drinking for the first time, alcohol adds hundreds of phantom calories that you vaguely feel you should be counting, but you're often too busy and overwhelmed to think about what you're putting in your mouth. Thus the dreaded "freshmen fifteen" - the extra weight that countless college guides warn against, and offer helpful tips to help avoid (I will never forget the sight of my freshmen year roommate, who owned such a book, scraping out the innards of a bagel and munching on the empty shell, saying, "I think bread is going to be my worst enemy this year."). Some colleges have decided to join the struggle against this supposedly unnecessary weight gain, including Yale, which recently added calorie counts to residential dining halls.

There was an interesting article in Newsweek this past week about this very phenomenon. New York City was the first to lead the way by requiring calorie labels in all major food chains, a decision that I feel very uncertain about, but college campuses are following, in an attempt to encourage college students to put down the French fries and reach for some lettuce instead. The calorie counts are supposed to make students more aware of what they're eating. But do they really? The article points out, rightly, that the sight of calorie numbers can be very triggering for people who are struggling with eating disorders already - instead of thinking about nutrition and eating a balanced diet, they fall back into patterns of calorie counting and guilt over eating. Calories add a level of shame to the process of eating that is all too familiar to me. Sadie over at Jezebel points out, rightly, that it often doesn't really help to know that a doughnut might actually have fewer calories than a bagel with cream cheese. Chances are that I'd eat the bagel anyway, but most of the pleasure would be taken away. I'd feel like I didn't have any self-control, and later that day, I'd deprive myself of another food I wanted.

Counting calories makes eating into something clinical. And inevitably, the focus should be on health rather than weight - going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week is great, but you don't need to go every day. Eating a salad is good for you, but if you want some ice cream afterward, you should have some - without feeling guilty. If dining halls really want to make students healthier, they can offer more vegetarian and vegan options and cut down on the amount of grease and fat in the food options. I gained weight my freshmen year because it was impossible to be vegetarian and eat healthily. Pizza was my only option, and knowing the number of calories would only have made me feel horrible about myself, and maybe not eat at all.

Going into my junior year, I still struggle with food. I scold myself for not going to the gym, and will go a week without dessert for some terrible, arbitrary reason. But I do know that the only way my school can help me is by giving me better food options, not by playing to the Type A calorie counter that lives deep inside me and countless other college students. And I hope that freshmen entering Princeton this fall can find ways to eat healthily and celebrate their bodies and their meals at the same time. After all, eating is one of the most intense physical pleasures we can experience. And in a college student's stressful life, it should be a source of joy.


At September 19, 2009 at 2:02 PM , Blogger TommyD said...

I hear that some of Princeton's res coll dining halls have gotten rid of trays. (Eating Clubs have been trayless for a while.) Not having a tray forces us to limit our intake to what can fit on a plate, and requires us to make a second trip back to the counter if we still feel hungry. A pretty small change, but one that could cut down on waists and waste.

At September 19, 2009 at 7:45 PM , Blogger Jillian said...

Very well put. Also, I think Princeton has found a good balance in terms of the "know what you're putting in your body" ordeal; you can access the nutrition information of the food at the dining halls online, but it's not there staring you in the face while you pick what to eat.

At September 24, 2009 at 4:34 PM , Anonymous La BellaDonna said...

Something I don't recall EVER reading, in all the miles of print about "The Freshman Fifteen":

The boys and girls who are graduating high school and going on to college, where they face the dreaded Freshman Fifteen - and where their bodies finish growing from boys and girls into men and women. Am I the only person who thinks it's strange that we assume ADULTS should try really, really hard to weigh what they weighed when they were still-growing CHILDREN??

Because that's what The Freshman Fifteen is about, in part: one's body is finishing the transition from child, to teenager, to adult. But in this country, at least, the expectation and the goal is that the adult will weigh no more than the growing child.


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