For most college students, eating and living well on-campus is easier said than done. Our hectic schedules make it nearly impossible to fit in a workout, and the constant access to free food and booze isn't helping. As a freshman, I took full advantage of the all-you-can-eat dining hall, attended any and all events that advertised free food, and became best friends with the vending machine just steps outside my dorm room. Health and nutrition were definitely not my priorities, and, slowly but surely, the Freshman 15 became a reality.

coffee, beer, tea
Lily Stephens

Fast forward to the following fall, I was starting my sophomore year and knew that it was time to make some changes regarding my health. I knew that certain routines probably needed to go (bye-bye dessert with every meal, habitual midnight pizza, and daily candy bars), but I had no idea where to start.

Clueless, overwhelmed, and developing a disordered relationship with food, I decided this was a job for a professional. I started meeting regularly with an on-campus nutritionist for some guidance about how to incorporate healthy habits into my diet. After a few months of appointments, I was happier and healthier than at any point during my freshman year, and I definitely could not have done it without help.

A firm believer that on-campus nutrition and wellness services are worth every penny of my Duke tuition, I thought I should spread the wealth and share three things that my nutritionist, Franca Alphin, wants every college student to know.

1. Food isn't "good" or "bad."

Food is not an issue of morality. It is not "good," "bad," "right," or "wrong." Food is food! Deeming certain foods as "bad" opens the door for guilt, shame, and disappointment, and food should not be a source of negative thoughts about oneself. This can be hard to remember, though, and is something I have really struggled with.

During the summer after my freshman year, I found myself labeling entire food groups as "bad" and would avoid them all together. Terrified of eating something that my mind considered "wrong," I was neglecting my body from a multitude of nutrients that I really needed. Any time I would eat these "bad" foods, I would shut down emotionally and was consumed by disappointment, which added a ridiculous level of unnecessary stress to my life.

Especially for those who struggle with maintaining a healthy relationship with food, reminding oneself that food is just food can be an impossible task, and remembering not to associate food with labels is something that we can all work on together.

2. Food isn't a number.

Counting calories, grams, ounces, etc. can develop into a compulsive, addictive habit that misses the true meaning of food. Food is about fuel, comfort, and nourishment, not about counting. Every single day I forget that "low-calorie" doesn't automatically mean healthier.

During the second semester of my freshman year, calorie counting consumed my life. I put so much effort and stress into memorizing and analyzing nutrition labels, that more of my time was spent thinking about my caloric intake than my coursework. I became a walking database for the number of calories in many common foods, but it was a lifestyle that I could not (and didn't want to) continue.

Even today, I struggle to remember that the true meaning of food is to make sure that I stay nourished, happy, and healthy. While I can still spiel about how many calories are in an insane number of foods, I am actively working on keeping in mind that nutrition isn't a platform for me to show off how good I am at adding up numbers, rather it is a way to fuel, nourish, and comfort my body.

3. Food is fuel. 

Food is the body's gasoline, fueling our day-to-day activities, allowing us to grow and develop, and helping us get better when we are sick. Added bonus: It tastes great!

How one decides to fuel their body is a personal decision, unique and different for each and every one of us. Because of this, we should focus on our own choices regarding how we are going to fuel our bodies and not on how others will. Why comment on a friend's decision to eat raw or vegan if you wouldn't comment on their decision to fill up their car with premium gas instead of regular? It's the same idea! Food is a personal matter, and we should focus on our own food-related decisions and not scrutinize others.

Thanks to a pesky gluten intolerance diagnosis, I've eaten gluten-free since my sophomore year of high school, so my diet is already pretty limited. This summer, I decided to try adopting a vegetarian lifestyle as a way to increase my vegetable intake — a decision that a lot of my friends and family thought was insane, because I was already "missing out on so much." I wanted to try something new because my idea of a serving of veggies was a cup of pickles (that counts, right?). I love that a vegetarian diet leaves my body feeling energized and rejuvenated, but some days it seems that everyone wants to comment on how I choose to fuel my body.

I am definitely not perfect and often find myself analyzing other's diets and restaurant orders. A lot of people struggle to remember that how you fuel your body is a personal and unique decision, so next time you find yourself scrutinizing someone for what they order when you go out to eat, remember that it is their decision. I'll be working on it with you.

Final Thoughts

Many of us have struggled with unhealthy relationships with food, including myself, and it is not something that you have to go through alone. If you find yourself obsessively counting calories, feeling guilt or shame around your eating habits, or trying a new dietary approach to life each week, it may be time to reach out and ask for some guidance. Consider meeting with a dietitian or therapist to discuss your concerns, and remember that resources for help and support are available.