Back to School: Do Colleges Create Food Addicts and Trigger Eating Disorders?

Are Dining Halls Creating Food AddictsNearly every student going away to college has heard of the infamous, so-called “Freshman 15.” This term came into existence due to incoming freshman’s tendency to gain weight. What is often not discussed is that anxiety over the freshman 15 can often trigger eating disorders.

There’s not one reason why students tend to gain weight when going away to college, though many of the reasons are tied to a change in structure. High school students are usually acclimated to a regimental schedule that often contains three meals a day. At college, studies have shown that students are less likely to eat breakfast. Motivated by a complex range of emotions ranging from excitement to homesickness, students often find themselves indulging in greater quantities of snack foods. College campuses are also famous for their all-you-can-eat dining halls, often giving students the carte blanche to binge on a wide array of choices (including sweets).

For this reason college campuses are trying to fight back against the obesity epidemic. Schools like Yale are now listing the amount of calories in foods served in residential dining halls. However, by emphasizing calorie counts, colleges are quite possibly triggering eating disorders.

To be sure, eating disorders among college students are on the rise. According to American College Health annual surveys, the number of students dieting, purging or taking laxatives to lose weight has increased from 28 to 38 percent since 2000. Even the overweight and obese students being targeted by colleges’ efforts might be suffering. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health found that roughly 40% of overweight college-age women engage in eating disordered behaviors in an attempt to lose weight. This defies the perception that individuals with anorexia or bulimia are always thin. According to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, “people aren’t concerned about the disordered eating among the overweight kids.”

The problem with calorie counting is that it oversimplifies nutrition. For example, a large soda might be high in calories but low in nutrients, while an avocado, while caloric, also is rich in nutrients. So if calorie counting isn’t the answer to combat college obesity, what is? Schools could consider organizing more exercise opportunities that don’t involve playing on a sports team or working out in a gym. Schools could also make healthy options more readily available in dining halls and emphasize portion size. There are likely a lot of students who want to eat healthy, they just aren’t sure how.

To that end, Penn State recently converted one of its all-you-can-eat dining halls into a so-named “healthy dining hall.” For each meal, the healthy dining hall serves a balanced meal consisting of 50 percent fruits and vegetables, 25% grains and 25% proteins.

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