Students navigate Northwestern Dining and ‘skinny dinner’ culture with an eating disorder

Maia Spoto, Assistant City Editor

Ejun Kim started recovering from her eating disorder last summer. The Medill freshman said she was breaking free from bingeing and purging cycles; she was cultivating a healthy relationship with food and exercise. However, since moving to campus, adjusting to dining halls and social pressures has curbed her healing.

“I seem like I’m in recovery. Like I’m all good,” Kim said. “Honestly, on the inside, I feel like I’m deteriorating slowly.”

In 2008, 32 percent of female and 25 percent of male college students displayed disordered eating behavior, and rates were rising, according to a 2011 study published in Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention.

Northwestern is no exception. Renee Engeln, a psychology Prof. at the University, said every quarter students approach her worrying about friends’ relationships with food.

While rates for anorexia and bulimia are too low to constitute an “epidemic,” Engeln said subclinical disordered eating behaviors, which “dance around the edge” of eating disorders, are everywhere. She said the amount of choices in the dining halls, where food is massively available, coupled with scheduling conflicts that cause students to miss meals, creates a perfect storm for disordered eating.

McCormick freshman Ben Fisk has an eating disorder that restricts the type of foods he can eat. Before he arrived at Northwestern, he said he didn’t know if he would find food that worked for him, or how he would socially navigate mealtimes. He worried that he would need to explain his history to every person he saw.

Compass Group, NU Dining’s food service provider, focuses on “inclusive dining” by providing a wide range of dishes, from balanced meals to comfort food. Because of this variety, Fisk said he finds viable plates every time he swipes into the halls. To date, no friends have confronted him over dietary decisions.

On the other hand, Kim said she has found new ways to limit her food intake during her college transition, in large part by restricting her choices in the dining halls. She labels foods she can eat without fear “safe,” while foods that cause anxiety are “unsafe.”

“I love chicken,” Kim said. “But now I’m like, is chicken a safe food? I don’t know. I can only eat tofu now.”

In November, NU Dining held its second annual 21-Day Plant Forward Challenge. The challenge encouraged students to eat one, two or three “plant-forward,” or vegan, meals each day for 21 consecutive days. The University dietitian, Lisa Carlson, said over 300 students joined the challenge, nearly doubling participation from last year.

Monitors and associate workers promoted the challenge inside the halls, while blog posts on the Dining website taught the basics of veganism. NU Dining encouraged students to try vegan dishes for environmental sustainability, animal welfare advancement and personal health, among other benefits.

“We have wonderful plant-based dishes on campus, and we want you to get to know them,” Carlson said. “It’s never been about restricting yourself.”

If students are struggling, they should see Carlson individually or schedule an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services, she said.

However, certified eating disorder registered dietitian Mary Lynn Duvall said adopting veganism can be “a land mine” for some students, exacerbating symptoms in populations that are genetically predisposed or already vulnerable to disordered eating. A 2013 study published by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said roughly half of anorexic women reported eating a vegetarian diet.

Duvall said disordered eating emerges from a gradual trend of restrictive decisions. Individuals sometimes use animal welfare and environmentalism as a justification to continue their restrictions, she said.

“The individual who is most likely to develop an eating disorder… (is) a high achiever who is perfectionistic,” Duvall said. “This just gives them another thing to attach that perfectionism to…. vegetarianism or veganism is another ‘legitimate’ way to restrict their eating.”

Medill sophomore and former Daily columnist Kathryn Augustine said her Northwestern University Health Service doctor quipped about Augustine’s bulimic history last spring, exemplifying a lack of eating disorder education on campus.

Augustine said she has seen veganism frequently progress into eating disorders, and that Compass Group should clarify any harm that may result when it promotes specific dietary patterns.

“Anything that involves food, where it could be triggering, people are going to be affected,” Augustine said.

Augustine also said she worries the challenge will normalize a perceived need to lose weight, since the lines between veganism and weight loss dieting often blur. Guided by state regulations for nutritional transparency, Compass Group posts calorie content and serving sizes for every dish, which Augustine said can trigger people who wrestle with eating disorders. Weight loss dieting is the primary predictor for teenage eating disorders, according to a 2016 study published in Pediatrics.

Talk of the “Freshman 15,” the notion that students will gain 15 pounds their freshman year, buzzes in Kim’s ears. Her friends frequently rush to the gym, lamenting the calories they’ve consumed and terrified of weight gain, she said. They tell Kim they need a “skinny dinner,” which is a salad — or no dinner at all.

“They’re things that seem so trivial, but they weirdly add up and enforce this idea that, ‘Yeah, I need to have a skinny dinner tonight,’” Kim said. “I should be like them. I should stop eating so much.”

Claudia Rosen, a therapist and clinical director for Connections Health, an Evanston counseling service offering eating disorder therapy, said calorie counting obstructs recovery for individuals with eating disorders. She said they should learn flexible eating without focusing on rigid numbers. A difference exists between calories and nutrients, and counting calories is an unsuccessful method even for neurotypical dieters, Rosen said.

“Having nutritional information that informs our self-care is useful,” Rosen said. “But there needs to be a very gentle process of utilizing that information to support a more relaxed, rather than anxiety-filled, approach.”

Despite anxieties about the “Freshman 15,” freshmen gain only a half-pound more than non-college individuals of the same age, a 2011 study published in Social Science Quarterly found. Duvall said some weight gain during freshman year is healthy. Due to maturing organs, most females don’t reach their adult weight potential until age 20, she said.

Weinberg freshman Julia Ammer said she sees room for improvement by starting conversations about eating disorders within the dining halls. Messages detailing nutrition information and sustainability hang in every dining hall. Ammer said perhaps the walls could also advance eating disorder education and provide resources for affected students.

Engeln said individuals lay the foundations early for relating to food and body image, but in college, there’s still time to adjust and find a healthier footing.

“I would love to see… more activism around really laying a solid foundation so you’re not setting yourself up for a lifetime of immersion in diet culture, which is where a lot of Northwestern students are heading,” Engeln said. “If you can plant a little radical seed that suggests there’s something else out there, it’s not a bad time to do that planting.”

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