Even though college should be a time to celebrate being independent and exploring new passions and interests, it’s also a time when we are bombarded with messages like “don’t eat X or you’ll gain the ‘freshman 15,’” and it’s common to see articles promoting a certain workout or diet that will prevent this dreaded weight gain.
These messages are pervasive and can even be dangerous. The transition to college is commonly when symptoms of eating disorders start to occur, and approximately 40% of college students report body image concerns, weight management behaviors and out of control eating, according to a paper by Alan M. Schwitzer and Laura Choate. Dieting itself can lead to multiple negative health outcomes, including weight cycling, slowed metabolism and nutrient deficiencies.
When I was in treatment for an eating disorder, I learned about Health At Every Size, or HAES. HAES is simply the concept that everyone, regardless of their weight, genetics or current health status, has the right to pursue health, and focusing on behaviors such as eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods and moving regularly is far more important than numbers. Instead of telling people that they have to reach a certain standard to be healthy, whether that is based on weights, calories or BMI, a HAES approach takes into consideration the vast diversity that the term “health” emcompasses.
From a HAES standpoint, basing your health on a number ignores the multifaceted nature of health, which includes not only physical but mental, emotional, spiritual and financial well-being. Spending too much time on the physical aspect can sometimes make it difficult to focus on the other dimensions of health, and it creates an additional layer of stress that could negatively impact mental and emotional health in the long run, which can be especially detrimental for college students, who are already under a lot of stress to begin with.
I have seen the negative impacts of focusing excessively on a number in myself and in my friends. I used to think that in order to be healthy, I had to see a certain number on the scale. Even when I did reach that number, it still wasn’t enough. I continued to exercise excessively and deny my body the fuel it needed. While pursuing “health,” I was actually damaging my physical and mental well-being.
Now I exercise because I love it and it makes me feel strong, not because I need to burn calories or lose weight. Once I stopped focusing so much on a number, I realized just how empowering it can be to workout while adequately fueling my body. Even though we live in a society that automatically associates thin with healthy, it is important to remember that health comes in all shapes and sizes, and focusing too much on an arbitrary number will only lead to frustration and disappointment.
Instead of talking about the calorie-burning effects of a workout, what if we focus more on the mental health benefits of exercise? Instead of calculating calories and counting macros, what if we practice eating mindfully and use mealtimes as a way to connect with friends? Instead of giving out advice for how to avoid the freshman 15, why can’t we focus on promoting self-love and embracing body diversity? Unfortunately, we can’t escape a lot of the diet culture rhetoric, but we can change how we respond to it.