Though many probably think that nutrition students eat healthy all the time, most nutrition students would emphasis to you it’s all about moderation. Sure, we read labels when grocery shopping and eat something green every day, but we also go out on weekends and finish our night with a slice of pizza. In the last three years of my degree, I have continued to learn that categorizing food as good and bad is not an effective, or accurate way, to achieve a healthy diet.
Starting Human Nutrition in freshman year, I think a lot of us enrolled because we liked eating healthy and were jumping on the nutrition trend. Unfortunately some, including myself, were not entering the program as “healthy” as we’d like to appear.
There are few studies on the relationships between eating disorders and students studying nutrition, but some research suggests that nutrition students have a higher prevalence of negative eating behaviours. This research also suggests that these negative behaviours were lower in the juniors and seniors, possibly due to increase in nutritional knowledge. Some may think that as learning about nutrition would make you more worried about what you’re eating, but for me it was the opposite.
When I told people I was going to be studying nutrition, some were optimistic while others were worrisome. In my final year of high school I had lost a lot of weight relatively fast which triggered a lot of attention from my peers, teachers, family members and friends. In my senior year of high school, dealing with university applications, grades and social pressures, I had started retracting from those around me early on in the year.
I bought a membership to a hot yoga studio and started running. I figured if I was being active, I might as well start eating healthier. My intentionally healthy lifestyle gave me a sense of control in a life which seemed to be changing fast. Like so many others, my diet and exercise turned to an obsession which lead to orthorexia and eventually anorexic and bulimic behaviours.
I knew I wasn’t healthy, but when asked about the weight loss, I would say it was due to my newly adopted vegetarianism and increased activity. I was successful is diverging teachers, guidance counsellors, friends and families who came to me with concern. I was able to hide the physical signs of deficiency like my hair falling out, my dry skin and nails, and my amenorrhea.
Those around me didn’t know how to address my lack of eating and social withdrawal. My parents pleaded, my male friends tried to tease me out of it and the girls tried to approach me, but in the end it was easier for everyone to believe the story about the girl who just needed to figure out how to get enough calories without eating meat.
Since food was all I ever thought about, a common behaviour in eating disorders, I figured I might as well study it. Honestly, in a weird way I wanted to promote real health to others despite the harm I was doing to my own body.
I continued many of my eating disorder behaviours through the first semester of my degree. After a lot of reflecting, I am still not sure exactly why things started to change. Partly I was tired of missing out on things that my new friends were doing because it involved food or wouldn’t fit into my eating schedule. I remember standing in the bathroom during frosh week taking my first shot of alcohol in a year, convincing myself it’d be ok.
I was also afraid of not doing well academically. My marks dropped in my last year of high school due to a lack of focus, energy and starving my brain of the sugars and nutrients it needed. I sat in my new classes learning about how our relationship with food is so important and the effects it can have on the body long term. The pressures that had lead to my eating disorder were gone and I knew that I was holding myself back in so many ways.
All of a sudden, on the drive from the airport to my house during Christmas break, I finally admitted to my family that I had a problem.
Recovery was a long process. Second semester of freshmen year was filled with refeeding my body which lead to a lot of bloating, uneven weight distribution, blood tests and frustration. I definitely had a long way to go, but I stopped tracking calories and started eating foods I hadn’t in over a year. I continued to sit in class, cook in labs and started accepting the samples of the food we made. After a long summer of counselling, I felt like I was becoming myself again.
Into second year, we started learning more about nutrient roles, deficiencies and eating disorders. Talking about certain subjects in class made my heart race, but learning about why nutrition is so important for short and long term body function fuelled my motivation to work towards recovery.
There were definitely some barriers along the way. Before I had shared my story publicly, I had to ask for adjustments on projects that involved meal and calories tracking, a behaviour I worked so hard to reverse. With an understanding professor, a supportive counsellor at the school and my friends and family to support me, by the end of the year I had opened up about my struggles and began actually living the healthy life I had been pretending a few years before.
There are still a lot of hard days; recovery is an ongoing process. I remember saying to my mom in second year that there were starting to be more good days than bad days. I can happily say that the bad days are now few and far between.
I sit in the classroom and am passionate about the lessons I’m learning and proud to be authentic when advocating for them. It stings a bit less when talking about eating disorders and I can participate in labs that involve diet diaries and body measurements. My degree continues to teach me that food is a tool that brings people together and nourishes our bodies to move, think and grow. For me, I’m fuelling my body for some big things ahead.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the American National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or the Canadian National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) at 1-866-633-4220.