Stop Telling Me to Eat Less: language, obsession, and eating disorders

By Jessica Brofsky

The NS1150: Introduction to Nutrition professor has a song he records and plays for the 575-person survey course. The chorus to what one might loosely call his “rap” repeats the line: “if you don’t need it, don’t eat it.” Long after I handed in my final exam and had forgotten the functions of the epiglottis and the specific benefits of soluble versus insoluble fiber, this line has haunted me. It echoes in my ear, begging to be used and misused, to justify whatever type of eating I want it to.

I have been overwhelmed by the number of people I know on this campus that have confided in me about struggling with eating disorders—most of whom are female and many of whom are in the nutrition department or have taken NS1150. I have been struck by their use of language regarding food. It is mathematical, formulaic, reduced to numeric values, calories in and out, a chart filled and full—an approach anything but moderated or holistic. It points to food as the enemy, the central axis and source from which all other problems extend. Eating disorders, which are rooted in problematic thinking and brain function, have psychological underpinnings that manifest themselves through food. In this way, food can be used to both manage and produce anxiety and depression when it becomes a source of control or loss of control, as in the case of binging. As psychological phenomena, eating disorders can be genetically predisposed. And the addition of social pressures tied to the Western ideal of beauty as equated with thinness, especially on top of the stressful academic environment, can make people vulnerable and generate the circumstances for a perfect storm.

Recently, a friend told me she was anorexic for three years and kept it up because she hated herself that much. It disgusts me to write this, but my initial reaction was to feel something competitive churn in me, something that made me want to say I hate myself more. It appears that being optimistic is out of style and dark, cynical self-hatred is in. We privilege thin bodies and self-torture and the kind of people who we deem “strong” enough to sustain the pain that accompanies inorganically working towards becoming underweight. In much the same spirit as the social contest of keeping busiest, we deprive ourselves of sleep and food. We supply the addictive attention, noticing jutting bones and slim legs, likening them to models and movie stars. Managing food—what’s on our plates—becomes another way of competing with the smart, attractive, frequently privileged people around us. It’s a classist competition, too: what grocery store do you go to? What kind of kombucha do you drink? Where did you get your poke bowl? And in our highly visual society, weightism, discrimination against larger people, is alive and actively operating. Of course, if someone is heavier, it does not mean they are less disciplined. If someone is skinnier, it does not mean they are strong-willed and have admirable self-control. But we still blend these false notions into warning signs and ways to constantly compare ourselves to others.

manon art (1).jpg
Art by Manon Elise Gros

These nutrition-specific social pressures are not just phenomena at Cornell or on college campuses or in undergraduate nutrition departments, but according to the research paper “Orthorexia Nervosa and Eating Disorder Symptoms in Registered Dieticians Nutritionists in the United States” by Tremelling et. al, they are also prevalent among registered dietician nutritionists (RDNs). There’s a huge number of RDNs—49.5%, to be exact—at high risk of having orthorexia nervosa (ON). These are the food-obsessed, and I mean can’t-order-food-at-a-restaurant-without-knowing-every-ingredient food-obsessed. ON can also manifest in such behaviors as creating unnecessary restrictions such as being gluten free without having an allergy or celiac disease. It makes sense that people who are already concerned with weight and food would naturally gravitate toward this subject; and spending a lot of time focusing on food and thinking about food choices—mirroring people with ON and eating disorders—can produce the obsession and turn into a serious condition. According to Jan Hangen, a dietician and Cornell alum, the RDNs feel pressure to eat a certain way and to look a certain way. They’re often the targets of food shaming—especially among themselves—and perpetuate this standard of what the article calls “a fixation with righteous eating.” While the exact relation of ON to eating disorders is unknown, they are frequently associated in their restrictions and risks (although, of course, eating disorders pose a much greater immediate threat, as anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness). The overdrawn concern with healthy eating looks similar to eating disorders as people with ON spiral into dysfunctional compulsion, holding themselves and others to the same strict, intolerant standards and hindering their abilities to be healthy and engage in certain activities.

In nutrition courses saturated with students obsessed with food, when you say, “if you don’t need it, don’t eat it,” what you need becomes open for interpretation. It isn’t universal and it changes depending on activities, gender, weight, metabolism, nutrients already consumed in a day, the time, lifestyle, etc. But in the cutthroat arena of the cafeteria, the small amount of food on her plate is the amount I want on mine. Beauty standards condition us to consider normal weight as surplus. I grew up knowing that my mom had anorexia in college. I also knew she modeled and had seen her pictures from when she was dangerously thin and wanted desperately to look like her, to have her frame. It wasn’t rational and I knew that she was sick, but it still colored my expectations for myself. The amount of food I “needed” then was reduced, cut back.

Hangen says, “A good eater can tolerate a lot of ambiguity. They feel comfortable with their feelings and know when they are tired, full, or hungry.” But a bad eater, without this natural intuition, needs to be told or relies on external factors. There are responsible eaters, sure, but we can hardly assume everyone is one or that everyone practices listening to their bodies and paying attention to signals of pain. As psychiatrist Dr. David Herzog says, education and information should theoretically be a good thing but that this isn’t always the case. Labeling calories on foods in cafeterias or cafés and offering nutrition courses should allow us to make informed decisions concerning our health. However, this can also cause fixation and obsession, moving us away from moderation.

When you say things to a class, predominantly freshmen, scared of gaining the freshman 15, about maintaining or losing weight, they hold onto it like gospel. Telling students, who are most likely taking this course with a predisposed obsession with calories and food, to weigh themselves every morning can be dangerous. It’s dangerous for me. I get obsessive with numbers. A higher weight in the morning informs my whole day, makes me prone to restrict, restrict, restrict—to cycle into some internal logic that doesn’t align with the rest of the world. A relationship with a nutritionist, much like a therapist, should be individualized, set in the context of a one-on-one personal interaction. That space should be private and sacred, adjusted to a specific set of needs, body image, and relationship to food. If I didn’t see a nutritionist, then I may not be aware that I should take this advice with a grain of salt. It may be a valid way to maintain a stable weight, but it overlooks individualized needs and often does so at the expense of preserving a healthy relationship with food.

In a nutrition survey course there will most likely be students more concerned with being thin than being healthy. Seeking this information entails a sort of selective hearing, a special attention to methods of weight loss, and a disregard for the bigger picture. Paradoxically, this attitude ignores the science of nutrition, what is actually healthy, and the technical contents of the course. People love to simplify nutrition, but our bodies are so complex that we don’t even really know what they need. Supplying these students with a catch phrase or a slogan that supports and encourages an approach to food that negates its value is not only unhelpful but potentially harmful, capable of causing lasting damage. It can negatively drive the way we feel about ourselves.

Our instructors should be cognizant of the miscellaneous groups of students in front of them. They should address this problematic obsession with food and promote an appreciation for it as something that energizes us and gives us pleasure. We need to be more sensitive and aware of the fragile dynamic between information and obsession. Eating disorders are so complicated—far more than I can allude to and capture in this space or even understand. But what shocks me is how little they were mentioned in my introductory nutrition course, how the professor glossed over them like a footnote at the end of a lesson. He didn’t discuss the intersection or relation of orthorexia nervosa to eating disorders, or trends in eating behaviors of which we should be wary. Instead, on the first day of class before outlining the breakdown of grades and announcing the TAs’ office hours, he projected a lecture slide with the question: “How little should I eat?” On the last day of class he seemed to answer this—a commonly asked question turned around to imply that we eat too much—by spelling out in capital letters “EAT LESS.” He claimed that these two words summarized the 2015 dietary principles on, but those encouraged healthy eating habits, and he did not. Healthy eating is not striving to eat less than some arbitrary amount, especially one left open for interpretation. It is relative, contextual, a complex formula of circumstance. And for those struggling with an eating disorder or at risk of developing one, this kind of language does not help. It can echo in your ear like the chorus of a song stuck on repeat. It can make you take that food that’s on your plate—the food that’s good for you, that brings you joy, that is just beyond the bare minimum to survive—and throw it away.

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