Mindful Eating 101 for College Students
“Fooooood fight!” These two words launched one of the best known cafeteria food fights ever filmed—it’s a scene from Animal House, a 1978 campus comedy. While this food fight still makes people laugh, the film footage unfortunately solidified many of the negative stereotypes about college food and students’ unhealthy eating habits that we still hold today. Students are labeled as mindless overeaters who load up on junk food and unhealthy snacks and are believed to be clueless when it comes to healthy eating. Since Animal House was filmed, we continue to be bombarded with images and messages that students are hopeless eaters.
It’s true that many students have difficulty moderating their eating, even those without clinical eating disorders. Studies on “normal” college eating habits highlight the unhealthy nature of many college students’ diets.1 Studies suggest between 30 to 70 percent of college students engage in “disordered eating habits.”
Disordered eating among college students can include weight preoccupation, binge eating, body dissatisfaction, obsessive focus on calories and fat, unhealthy eating, and compensatory behavior such as obsessive exercise and vomiting. While some eating problems don’t meet the full diagnostic criteria for anorexia and bulimia, they are a concern and warrant attention. “Disordered eating” and subclinical eating disorders/dieting can be distressing enough to interfere with academic work, health, relationships, and social life.
Concerns about body image, body shape, body size, and weight control are well documented among certain college populations such as athletes, sorority women, and counseling clients.2 International students are another population that could be at risk. A study found that international students gained an average of three pounds and their body fat rose about 5 percent after only twenty weeks of school.3 According to the study, international students had difficulty moderating their eating because they had more access to an unlimited amount of food, ate foods their bodies were not accustomed to, and had heavier meals than in their home countries.
Tips for Parents and Counselors of Students with Eating Concerns:
1. Be Mindful of Your Message
Many mental health professionals and parents send college students a mixed message about healthy eating. Professionals strongly urge, “don’t diet;”diets don’t work and can trigger eating disorders. In the same breath, professionals also advise “don’t overeat” to avoid obesity-related health problems and the psychological consequences of overeating. An example of a positive message is to encourage students to “eat mindfully” or focus on “intuitive eating,” which is simply being more aware of what, how much, and why you eat. Eating mindfully means being more attentive to unhealthy routines, repetitive meals and getting to know your body—paying close attention to hunger, satiation cues, and nutritional needs.
2. Mindful Benefits
Why should students eat mindfully rather than diet? The answers don’t have to hinge on body image. For example, dieting has been shown to negatively impact cognitive performance and inhibit memory. Healthy eating can help improve grades!
3. Speak Mindfully
The term “freshman fifteen” is part of our cultural vernacular. Unfortunately, many students are scared to death of gaining the legendary, “freshman fifteen.” Encourage student to stop using these words altogether. This common phrase seems to do little for inspiring healthy eating habits. Instead, it may just raise student’s anxiety. Graham and Jones found that “freshman who were concerned about gaining 15 pounds were more likely to think about their weight, have a poorer body image than others, and categorize themselves as being overweight.” The danger of the “freshman fifteen” is that it may “normalize” unhealthy habits or create a “self fulfilling prophecy.” Students may be engaged in unhealthy snacking and meals because it is “expected.” Encourage students to talk about “eating more mindfully” rather than “dieting.”
4. Mindful Eating Days
Suzanne Sonneborn, nutrition educator at the University of New Hampshire hosted a “Mindful Eating Day” for students. Seewww.eatingmindfully.com/mindfuleating101/Day_Poster.pdf for ideas on how to create a similar event and strategies for teaching students mindful eating habits. For example, UNH hosted a group “mindful meal” to encourage students to schedule in a few “mindful meals” a week. A “mindful meal” focuses on sitting down, putting aside the books and focusing 100 percent on eating rather than stuffing in a few crackers while running out the door. Also, see Beth Shoyer’s “Eating Mindfully” 6-week programwww.studenthealth.missouri.edu/MPC/mindfuleating.htm, and consult the new book, Mindful Eating 101 (www.mindfuleating101.com) for additional ideas on teaching students mindful eating skills.
1. Racette, S., S. Deusinger, M. Strube, G. Highstein, and R. Deusinger. 2005. Journal of American College Health 53(6):245–51.
2. Hoyt, W., and S. Ross. 2003. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 17(4): 39–54.
3. Chen H-F, Holben DH. 2000. Journal of American Dietetic Association 100 (Suppl. 1):A-29.
By Dr. Susan Albers
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Winter 2006 Volume 4, Number 1
©2006 Gürze Books
About the Author
Dr. Susan Albers is a psychologist and author of Mindful Eating 101: A Guide to Healthy Eating in College and Beyond and Eating Mindfully: How to Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food. Visit her website: www.eatingmindfully.com
Dr. Gnap website editor eatingdisordersrecoverytoday.com. Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago. Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.