Truth about food: Practicing mindfulness in our eating habits

Illustration of person eating food
Olivia Staser/Staff

In the midst of midterms, project deadlines and a wealth of other personal responsibilities, nutrition can easily become an afterthought. Transitioning to independent living in college can be overwhelming, especially since students have full power and responsibility to control meal choices. It can quickly become the norm to grab a snack instead of dinner, skip lunches and forget to really nourish yourself.

The human body is resilient: It fights pathogens, keeps you moving up the hills on campus and heals itself if you sprain your ankle. But unfortunately, as students, we often take this resilience for granted and neglect our bodies —  electing to focus on the short-term, less forgiving obstacles in our lives, such as schoolwork and career goals.

This disconnection from our bodies, however, disregards the intimate relationship between our physical and mental health. 

“My hope for students in this stage of life is that they can learn to feed their bodies appropriately and adequately,” said Toby Morris, lead clinical dietitian at University Health Services, or UHS. She further encouraged students “to cultivate a peaceful relationship with food and their bodies, so that they’re nourishing their physical self but also their spirit and their soul.” 

It is important to cultivate a sense of mindfulness around eating patterns and how we choose to nourish ourselves. This idea of mindfulness takes on a new significance when applied to the issues of body image, eating disorders and disordered eating.

Morris, who specializes in eating disorders and mindful eating, urges students to pay attention to their thoughts and take note if patterns of obsessive thinking surrounding food are taking hold. When you notice these concerning patterns, it is important to reach out for help.

I think people, especially Berkeley students who are super goal-oriented, high-achieving, really smart — I think people feel guilty for needing help with something, but eating disorders rarely just go away on their own,” Morris explained.

It is vital that those struggling with disordered eating behaviors seek professional help, Morris explained, because it can be confusing to discern natural hunger cues (or lack thereof) of one’s body from the tempting voice of an eating disorder.

Eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors do not necessarily fall neatly into the well-known diagnoses of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. According to Morris, the majority of students who come to UHS for eating disorder help have behaviors that don’t exactly match these categories. 

And while many disordered behaviors stem from body image issues, some are entirely unrelated. In any conversation about eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors, we must remember each situation is highly individualized. 

For those with negative body image and who are working to improve their relationship with food and their bodies, Morris recommends listening to inner thoughts with compassion — you must separate your true self from the irrational voice perpetuating shame for your appearance. In addition, being aware of the media you consume and whose company you keep can also have a large impact on how you see yourself.

Alexa Truong, a campus junior who is studying nutritional sciences, always had a passion for the relationship between food and health but fell into a pattern of binge eating behavior her freshman year. She said the nature of dining halls, the set hours of operation and wide variety of food available, helped foster a cycle of restricting and overeating for her. Truong added that the judgment she received for gaining weight after her first semester worsened her body image.

Truong, who said she now has a much more positive relationship with food, learned to shift her perspective on this physical change. “(I) understand that the weight gain was good because I was pretty much hungry, and now I feel like I’m eating to what my body needs,” Truong said. “In the past, I was restricting, and my body was crying and showing me pain.”

Truong, who hopes to empower others to improve their relationship with food by writing for Spoon University and sharing positivity on her food Instagram account, attributed this change in perspective partially to her experience with fitness. She began to appreciate what her body could do, instead of being preoccupied with maintaining a certain weight.

Maintaining a certain weight is a goal and obsession for many, especially during college. But we cannot stay in teenage bodies forever, and weight gain during this time is not only normal but healthy and necessary. In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s growth charts for boys and girls aged 2-20, weight continues to rise from ages 18-20 — about the time an average freshman enters college. Morris included this chart in a blog post exposing the toxic untruth of the so-called freshman 15. 

The freshman 15 is just one of the many ways diet culture is tragically normalized. But we can choose to combat these harmful norms with mindfulness applied not only to nutritional decisions but also to our language and understanding. 

Instead of seeing food as a means to an end, the factor impacting weight and appearance, see it as what it truly is: necessary fuel for physical and mental well-being. 

“It’s a non-negotiable. It’s one of the basic needs,” Morris said. “We all know that if we do not sleep our brains and bodies do not function well, and the same goes for food. We all need rest. We all need water. We all need food.”

If you are struggling with disordered eating, visit uhs.berkeley.edu/studentnutrition for help.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].