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Re-thinking Thanksgiving Dinner: recognition of an eating disorder epidemic

January 24, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Holly Harris

[Trigger warning: Eating disorders.]

Some of you may have seen the display that went up on Moulton’s bulletin board the day of Bowdoin’s famed Thanksgiving Dinner. If you did not see it, good. It was thankfully only up for a day and a half. I will not include a picture of it here as I believe that to be irresponsible given what I am about to write. A few details will suffice. Around a picture of a Thanksgiving dinner were two columns of text. The left column was titled “Calories at Thanksgiving” and included a list of Thanksgiving foods with the calories for one “serving” of each. The right column was titled “Strategies to Decrease Intake and Manage Weight” and preceded a list of tips. Above both columns, a title read, “Extra Calories = Weight Gain.” I regret even having to explain the original post, but I need to underline why it’s problematic. In doing so, I present the following: my own version of the Thanksgiving Nutrition Display.

Nutrients at Thanksgiving: [Note that serving sizes would really vary depending on your age, activity level, appetite, excitement for Thanksgiving foods, metabolism, meals earlier in the day and many other factors.] A half-cup of mashed potatoes would contain 10 percent of your daily potassium. An ear of corn provides you with two grams of fiber. A serving of green beans contains an additional 2.6 grams of fiber and nourishes your body with essentials like calcium and iron. In just one serving of turkey (and you might want to go back for seconds, so feel free to double these values) you would ingest 30 percent of your daily dose of vitamin B-6 and, the kicker, 29 full grams of protein!  That’s 58 percent of an average daily recommendation of protein! For the amount of pumpkin in a slice of pie—or two, depending on its size—you would get 49 percent of your daily Vitamin K, 19 percent of Vitamin C and 10 percent of Vitamin E. All in all, you would likely end with a complete dose of your daily potassium, a healthy serving of vitamins, more than half your protein along with a good balance of carbohydrates and fats … and hopefully, a smile on your face followed by a nap.

Strategies to Decrease Malnutrition and Manage the Eating Disorder Epidemic: Don’t “demand weight changes.” Don’t “make eating…the focus of the conversation.” Don’t “place blame on the person.” These are a few of the recommendations that the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) included in its 2013 pamphlet “Eating Disorders on the College Campus.” Major findings from the comprehensive study include the need for eating disorder screenings, training of coaches and dieticians, increased counseling and programming for athletes. From the perspective of students with personal experience in this realm, I don’t see Bowdoin succeeding in regard to many of these suggestions. Here’s why we need to do better.

The same NEDA report points to college culture as a significant driver of eating disorders and related symptoms. Students confront social and academic pressures to adapt and conform, which can worsen or bring back (if not instigate) unhealthy habits like disordered eating. 18 to 22 is an impressionable age group and one in which most disorders develop. The researchers assert that “Our current cultural climate idealizing thinness and placing emphasis on weight as a primary indicator of health only contributes to fears of gaining weight.” Many of us can recognize these fears living within the imaginary yet very real Bowdoin ideal body type. NEDA cites a study on the “Freshman 15” which did not find the popular myth of college-related weight gain to hold any credibility. This fact may come as a relief to some, but the reality is much more horrifying; in one survey, the prevalence of eating disorder symptoms among college students was a third of women and a quarter of men.

Many contemporary concepts of nutrition remain stuck in 20th-century medical science—a subject and an era witness to rapidly changing knowledge, strong opinions, steadfast gender norms and a lack of critical oversight. We live in a time of nutritional confusion, heads still spinning after being catapulted from a land of agricultural uncertainty into a fast-food nation. From a culture that saw plumpness as a sign of material abundance we are changing into one that sees thinness as a sign of the perverse luxury to choose not to eat. We all know diets as a test of discipline and a road to health. Sadly, NEDA observed that “35 percent of ‘normal’ dieters progress to pathological dieting,” about a quarter of which escalates to diagnosable disorders. We are starving ourselves into a more severe mental health crisis than we care to admit.

Through all my critical remarks, I do not intend to blame one person or even one school for so many issues. This is a societal problem, but each small action matters.

“The cultural value placed on thinness and normalization of dieting behaviors in the U.S. can contribute to hearing comments from others that encourage and reinforce eating disorder behaviors,” concludes NEDA. I saw the Moulton bulletin being put up and knew it would cause problems. Still, in that moment, I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. Instead, I shoved a few last fries in my mouth and ran to class. The rest of my afternoon was consumed going down a rabbit hole of overanalyzing thoughts and self-critical and self-shaming degradations.

The display was taken down after some quickly responsive emails to deans and Dining—sent by me and several other vocal students—and a card posted directly on the board. I’ll openly take responsibility for pinning that comment card to the board, because I stand by my assertion that “This is not appropriate. It shames people and is triggering.” Neither do I find it appropriate to call my comments “angry,” “insulting” and “negative” (words used by Susanne D’Angelo Cooley, nutritionist at Moulton Union and the Orient writer in the December 6 issue’s short news blurb). This description makes me seem hot-headed and irrational—hardly an uncommon characterization of any person speaking up against an institution. They are right, however, that I was angry. I am still angry.

Nutritionists and therapists who work with Bowdoin students have told me something I already know and perhaps you already know too: students here struggle with disordered eating. We are not immune. If anything, our perfectionist tendencies and high-stress environment increase the risk. Our issue is not gaining weight over the holidays. It is treating our bodies poorly because we worry that we will.

Anna Martens is a member of the Class of 2020.

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3 comments:

  1. Class of 2015/Recovering from an Eating Disorder says:

    Thank you for writing this.

  2. Will Martens says:

    This is a wonderfully written op-ed article, with evidence of thorough research and poised explanation. Your description of where we are as a society in relation to our eating habits is quite compelling – I especially liked the way you described “the perverse luxury to choose not to eat.”

    Bravo. Way to point out the amazing value of a meal that we often feel ashamed of for eating.

    • Cat Martens says:

      I absolutely agree. A very informative read that pushes you to think more about media surrounding food and an interesting insight into this issue specifically at Bowdoin.

      I love how vocal you are in your community!


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