Learning how to eat

Ignorance is bliss. In high school, caloric awareness was not something that characterized my eating habits. Quite the contrary, I had no qualms about routinely participating in eating competitions with my hulking guy friends and prided myself on having the biggest appetite on my team. Although I still relish food, my perspective has changed over the past three years and I must admit that the oblivion has disappeared. Luckily, my upbringing ensures that I will always maintain a celebratory relationship with food culture: I grew up in food-centric Northern California, and time spent with my family revolves around the preparation and consumption of quality eats.

The removal of the familial meal structure influenced how I, and I imagine how others, developed different eating habits in college. At home, my mother and father would prepare a wholesome meal that I would devour upon returning home from school and practice. And it was just that – I’d eat to satiation exactly what they’d put before me without question or concern. At the College, the dining hall presents overwhelming variety. At first, I reveled in the glories of buffet-style dining, but I quickly learned that multiple plates make it difficult to discern what and how much you’ve eaten, and somehow the all-you-can-eat options can render you overly satiated and yet unsatisfied at the meal’s conclusion. After this “food initiation,” I tried to define more reasonable food habits, and I thought my counterparts did the same – that is until I realized that my peers ate with the utmost “health awareness.” In the face of abundance and cautious eating, one can browse the expansive salad bar and select predominantly vegetables, consume rice cakes at every meal or eat cereal at dinnertime.

After the blissful ignorance of freshman fall, I gained an unwanted awareness of what “everyone else” was doing. This notion of self-judgment and decision-making based on standards set by others plagues the eating and exercise culture of the College. Witnessing platefuls of salad and vegetables makes you question if such a diet is advantageous, and the frantic energy of the “estrogym” makes you wonder if you too should undertake a massive elliptical session for the coveted calorie-burning effect. Strong surrounding influences coupled with hesitant navigation – who knows what and how much to eat or how to choose the ideal amount of exercise – breeds an atmosphere of constant scrutiny and comparison, a lethal combination in such a competitive environment.

This mentality nagged me throughout my sophomore year, and although I never had an active problem, I grew tired of the unnecessary stress and wasted thought. Being home for the following summer changed these learned thinking patterns. Once I arrived back in an environment with an alternate perspective on food, I gained both a newfound appreciation and desire to learn about truly wholesome eating. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food have been invaluable tools in helping me construct a healthy diet and mentality.

Michael Pollan claims that a “national eating disorder” plagues the United States, and In Defense of Food in particular decries America’s lack of food culture, which leads to fad diets and processed food deconstructed and rebuilt in the name of “nutrition.” Yet for all the fixation on well-being, Americans continue to become more unhealthy and confused. Pollan’s words of wisdom are simple and have stuck with me: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I hesitate to include the last two tidbits, because they can easily be misconstrued and are not particularly relevant to the situation before us; indeed, it is ironic that disorders of self-deprivation coexist with rampant overeating of bad food and the ensuing obesity-related diseases in our society.

Pollan’s initial piece of advice, however, embodies an invaluable simplicity. It is junior spring, and I’ve finally figured out how I need to eat. I strive for balance and moderation and know that at every meal I must eat a substantial portion of something with substance – fat and protein – so that a mere plate of salad does not leave me unhappy, unsatisfied and ravenous in my room shortly after leaving the dining hall. By no means do I tout this model as the “correct” one – it is purely the method that makes me feel wholesomely satisfied and at ease.

February is National Eating Disorder Awareness Month, and if we truly aim to “claim Williams” via individual, institutional and cultural change, we must address the difficult topics that afflict the psyche of college students, athletes and females in general – the dual, unhealthy mentalities of comparison and disordered eating. The insular environment and competitive, high-achieving mentality of the College makes this issue especially prevalent on our campus. The outpouring of community support on Claiming Williams Day reminded me of our campus’ receptiveness to uncomfortable discussion, and I hope that this anecdote contributes to positive change.

Celeste Berg ’13 is an economics major from Sebastopol, Calif. She lives in Williams Hall.