Healthy eat­ing in res­i­dence

On-cam­pus cafe­te­rias con­trib­ute to dis­or­dered eat­ing

The McGill Daily - - News -

Many stu­dents may not have the means to spend too gen­er­ously on food, and there­fore the ex­clu­sion of af­ford­able healthy food op­tions at the cafe­te­ria does a great dis­ser­vice.

Con­tent warn­ing: eat­ing dis­or­ders

The fol­low­ing is a real ac­count of a Mcgill stu­dent’s ex­pe­ri­ences dis­or­dered eat­ing on cam­pus. Names have been changed upon re­quest. “From what you’ve told me,” Laila’s psy­chi­a­trist says while peer­ing at her, “it’s very clear that you have bu­limia. You don’t have to nec­es­sar­ily vomit af­ter ev­ery meal to have bu­limia, but it’s sim­ply the act of bal­anc­ing be­tween two ex­tremes – binge eat­ing con­sis­tently for a few days and then not eat­ing at all for the next few days to com­pen­sate for this, or by say – ex­er­cis­ing, tak­ing lax­a­tives, things like that.”

Laila al­most smiles at first. Her psy­chi­a­trist at the Mcgill clinic sounds like she is read­ing from a gro­cery list. She won­ders how many other stu­dents have been given this ex­act news on this very sofa. On her way to the Sub­way in the Arts build­ing (she is do­ing a sig­nif­i­cantly low­ercalo­rie ver­sion of the Sub­way diet these days: noth­ing for break­fast, a six-inch sub for lunch, noth­ing for din­ner, re­peat) she calls her par­ents and tells them about her ap­point­ment. They are eat­ing din­ner and watch­ing the tele­vi­sion. She al­ways binges when she is home­sick – she misses the days when her mother would come sit next to her when­ever she would in­sist on skip­ping a meal, kiss her fore­head, and feed her with her own hands, no mat­ter how old she got. To­day, Laila is aware of the fact that per­haps one of the main rea­sons her eat­ing pat­terns have be­come so much worse in col­lege is be­cause her main source of food and nu­tri­tion is also the place where there are abun­dant trig­gers for her dis­or­dered eat­ing. This in­cludes the way the stereo­typ­i­cal “skinny” fig­ure is cel­e­brated and strived for among stu­dents, as well as the ab­nor­mal and un­healthy eat­ing habits that ex­ist on cam­puses.

The funny thing is, Laila is far more con­cerned about the fact that this di­ag­no­sis has had al­most no ef­fect on her. In ret­ro­spect, she should have seen it com­ing. Over win­ter break, she binged al­most ev­ery sin­gle day. She broke her own record on the last Satur­day be­fore win­ter se­mes­ter be­gan. In a span of a few hours, Laila had con­sumed a glass of choco­late milk, a heaped bowl of mac­a­roni and cheese, a bowl of pasta, a cin­na­mon bun heaped with frost­ing, a sub­stan­tial amount of sushi, a bub­ble waf­fle, bub­ble tea and of course, Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream. The im­pli­ca­tions of this were not clear to Laila, be­cause binge­ing is an­other eat­ing habit that is nor­mal­ized in a univer­sity en­vi­ron­ment. Around bed­time, she had two glasses of green tea and called it a night. First se­mes­ter, her meals con­sisted of pas­tas, piz- zas, Cokes with ev­ery meal, cook­ies, the four dol­lar desserts, some­times a salad, but usu­ally the stan­dard was chicken burg­ers with cheese and fries in­stead. All cour­tesy of the Mcgill cafe­te­rias, where stu­dents with dis­or­dered eat­ing have no im­me­di­ate sup­port and a mil­lion avail­able op­por­tu­ni­ties to, like in Laila’s case, binge.

Watch­ing a small ocean of may­on­naise be­ing poured into her sand­wich, Laila thinks to her­self: there are two cour­ses of ac­tion avail­able to her. The first is to add a few cook­ies and maybe a bag of chips to your or­der. Eat to your heart’s con­tent – the greasi­est pou­tine, a large pizza, a kilo­gram of Nutella. De­stroy your body for the mo­men­tary sat­is­fac­tion. Lim­its are made to be crossed. The meal plan ex­ists for a rea­son af­ter all – the cafe­te­rias wel­come you with all sorts of de­lights.

The sec­ond op­tion is to go home with her Sub­way sand­wich and stick to her diet. Lose all that weight. The ob­jec­tive is to be­come smaller, but Laila some­times thinks that the ul­ti­mate goal is sim­ply to dis­ap­pear com­pletely.

A third op­tion has been giftwrapped cour­tesy of her psy­chi­a­trist. Once Laila is re­ferred to the eat­ing dis­or­der pro­gram, she will have to meet with a nu­tri­tion­ist who eval­u­ates her sit­u­a­tion, discusses it with her psy­chi­a­trist, and presents her with a di­ag­no­sis. Once this is done, she is likely to be of­fered the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend a psy­choe­d­u­ca­tion class, which will in­form her about the dif­fer­ent things that trig­ger eat­ing dis­or­ders, and how to pre­vent them.

Laila finds her­self sit­ting be­fore a nu­tri­tion­ist a few weeks later. There is a glow on the nu­tri­tion­ist’s face, and kind­ness in her eyes, which make her in­stantly com­fort­ing. Laila opens up to her, an­swers all her ques­tions, al­lows her­self to be guided to the weigh­ing ma­chine, gri­maces with great discomfort as a num­ber ap­pears in that ugly sepia colour. The nu­tri­tion­ist then gives Laila a pam­phlet in which to make a note of all her meals. She is sup­posed to write what food she ate, what time she ate the food, who she ate it with, where it was eaten, whether she had the urge to binge or re­strict her in­take while she ate, whether she acted on the urge, and of course, the dreaded “thoughts and feel­ings” sec­tion. Laila feels like her most pri­vate thoughts are be­ing laid out on a cold hos­pi­tal bed for an MRI scan to be per­formed. Her nu­tri­tion­ist smiles at her. She tells Laila that this will be trig­ger­ing at first, but some­times that needs to hap­pen in or­der for re­cov­ery to be­gin. Re­cov­ery is an ac­quired taste, and Laila has failed time and again to de­velop it.

As she is get­ting ready to leave, her nu­tri­tion­ist says, “Next ses­sion, we’re go­ing to make you a re­ally com­pre­hen­sive meal plan. It’ll re­ally bal­ance out your life if you slowly be­gin to in­te­grate it into your diet, not all at once be­cause that’s an un­re­al­is­tic goal. It’s go­ing to re­set your me­tab­o­lism, your full­ness and hunger cues, and over time, your eat­ing will be­gin to re­spond to your body rather than your mind.”

“That sounds all very nice in the­ory,” Laila says, “but I keep think­ing to my­self that I’d rather just starve my­self un­til I lose a bit of weight. I’m sorry, that was far too hon­est.”

Her nu­tri­tion­ist smiles. “No, hon­esty is great. That’s the eat­ing dis­or­der talk­ing. We’re go­ing to make progress.”

For a sec­ond Laila be­lieves her. Then the door closes.

That night, Laila sits with a few friends at din­ner – one of them is talk­ing about how this is her first proper meal of the week. The rest has all been black cof­fee, Premier Mois­son brown­ies and junk food from the vend­ing ma­chines. An­other friend brings up how “fat” a girl in her class is. Laila stares down at the pieces of penne gen­er­ously coated with parme­san and oregano, and it has never looked more un­ap­peal­ing to her.

So far, this is what Laila’s progress looks like. When her sis­ter vis­its, she eats the un­health­i­est food. In a span of three days, Laila fin­ishes an ex­tra large jar of Nutella and close to sev­enty Lindt choco­late balls all by her­self (there was a sale at the Lindt shop in Ea­ton Cen­tre). Then there are a few days where she be­comes fe­ro­ciously com­mit­ted to healthy eat­ing. She or­ders sal­ads at restau­rants, snacks on Greek yo­gurt topped with gra­nola, and munches on car­rots.

These days, ev­ery kind of food is mak­ing her nau­seous. Yes­ter­day, the first thing she ate all day was yo­gurt at seven in the evening, fol­lowed by a slice of pizza. This has a lot to do with how res­i­dence cafe­te­ria has ab­so­lutely no healthy op­tions to of­fer save for a half-empty salad bar sta­tion. As for the pizza, this was the only veg­e­tar­ian, mildly fill­ing op­tion avail­able at the cafe­te­ria across the street. The only other al­ter­na­tive was veal tortellini, which was a few as­sorted pasta pieces swim­ming in a bowl of heavy cream; there wasn’t even any chicken left at the grilling sta­tion, which hap­pened to be the only truly healthy op­tion that she could eat. A lit­tle later, she threw up both the yo­gurt and the pizza. Ad­mit­ting to this will be one of the most dif­fi­cult things Laila has to do, but go­ing an en­tire day with­out nour­ish­ment had ig­nited in her a twisted sense of ac­com­plish­ment. To know you are not gain­ing weight is enough sat­is­fac­tion, even if it comes at the cost of your phys­i­cal and men­tal well­be­ing.

To­mor­row, Laila is go­ing to try and chan­nel through her nau­sea, eat­ing fresh fruits and veg­eta- bles, treat­ing her body to pro­tein. En­rich­ing it, nour­ish­ing it, treat­ing it with an al­most fa­mil­ial ten­der­ness. She tries to re­mind her­self, your body is your home. Don’t de­stroy it.

To do this, how­ever, Laila is go­ing to have to walk to the cafe­te­ria in the snow and wait 15 min­utes for her grilled chicken, while the freshly pre­pared pizza (still hot from the oven) prac­ti­cally laughs at her mis­for­tune.

Then again, there is a very good chance that Laila will wake up to­mor­row and fill her­self with thou­sands of calo­ries, or maybe she will wake up and de­cide an in­suf­fi­cient five calo­ries are enough. Ei­ther way, the cafe­te­ria down­stairs has every­thing she needs. Su­gary waf­fles, slices of fudge, two bite brown­ies, packs and packs of Dori­tos, choco­late crois­sants. It will al­most never go ac­cord­ing to plan, and that has a lot to do with the im­mensely trig­ger­ing temp­ta­tion that en­com­passes liv­ing up­stairs from a cafe­te­ria where the only (mildly) fill­ing (and not at all nu­tri­tious) op­tion is the oc­ca­sional mac­a­roni and cheese that tastes vaguely like plas­tic.

How­ever, there is a sil­ver lin­ing. The lady who works at Laila’s res­i­dence cafe­te­ria takes an ac­tive in­ter­est in the food op­tions that are avail­able. She tells Laila about the pro­tein op­tions and the freshly made veg­etable pani­nis she wants to add to the cafe. Sure, she also tells Laila about how she is re­stock­ing the two-bite brown­ies, but where there is a de­mand, a sup­ply needs to be gen­er­ated. What mat­ters is that there are peo­ple who are ac­tively en­thu­si­as­tic about, and con­cerned with, how well-nour­ished the stu­dents are – this is one small mercy in Laila’s story, which is painfully com­mon and largely un­ad­dressed at Mcgill.

Mcgill cafe­te­rias ur­gently need to work to im­prove the qual­ity of their food. Al­though the grilling sta­tions and the salad bars are a good place to start, more sand­wich op­tions can be in­tro­duced, along with a larger se­lec­tion of sal­ads and veg­eta­bles. Health­ier soup op­tions can be made avail­able, as op­posed to just one (usu­ally a meat-based potage.) Lit­tle things can re­ally go a long way. From the ex­ist­ing bud­get that we use to feed the stu­dents un­healthy food, we can in­vest in more healthy food op­tions. Ad­mit­tedly, healthy food op­tions can some­times be more ex­pen­sive, es­pe­cially at the cafe­te­ria where a ba­nana will cost you a dol­lar, when in any gro­cery store, an en­tire bunch of ba­nanas cost a dol­lar. A big bag of chips costs five to six dol­lars. On the other hand, a pizza is go­ing to cost sig­nif­i­cantly less than a grilled meat with salad, but the dif­fer­ence it makes to your health is price­less. Fur­ther­more, many stu­dents may not have the means to spend too gen­er­ously on food, and there­fore the ex­clu­sion of af­ford­able healthy food op­tions at the cafe­te­ria does a great dis­ser­vice.

Presently, Mcgill cafe­te­rias cater more to what a stu­dent wants to eat than what a stu­dent needs to eat. Fur­ther­more, deals like “cookie mad­ness” make it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for a stu­dent to re­strict how much food they are tak­ing in. How­ever, ini­tia­tives like “Meat­less Mon­days” fea­tur­ing only veg­e­tar­ian op­tions, can go a long way if sim­i­lar op­tions can be de­vel­oped to gen­er­ate en­thu­si­asm among stu­dents to eat health­ier and smarter through­out the week. In­stead of the oc­ca­sional hot choco­late sta­tion, fresh fruit juices can be brought in in­stead. Charts and ban­ners il­lus­trat­ing what a healthy, bal­anced meal should look like should be placed at ev­ery counter, with the in­ten­tion of ed­u­cat­ing the stu­dent about health and re­mind­ing them that it should be a pri­or­ity for them.

Ac­cord­ing to the nu­tri­tion­ists at the eat­ing dis­or­der pro­gram, a healthy meal should be fifty per cent veg­eta­bles, 25 per cent pro­tein and 25 per cent car­bo­hy­drates. In the “hot meal” op­tion at the cafe­te­ria, the “main dish” is usu­ally a car­bo­hy­drate op­tion like pasta or lasagna, or some­times a pro­tein op­tion, while the sides are usu­ally car­bo­hy­drates as well, along with a small bowl of salad. To­mor­row, take a stroll in one of the cafe­te­rias and see for your­self how many stu­dents miss out on the es­sen­tial com­po­nents of healthy eat­ing. In this en­vi­ron­ment that they ex­ist in, un­healthy eat­ing is not only nor­malised, but it is cel­e­brated in the con­tent of memes all over the in­ter­net or in the bond that de­vel­ops be­tween two peo­ple when they split a twelve-inch Dou­ble pizza at three in the morn­ing.

The Look­ing Glass is a col­umn based on the au­thor’s re­flec­tions on men­tal health and first-year life on cam­pus. To con­tact the au­thor, email th­elook­ing­glass@mcgill­daily.com.

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