Tales from a dieter: Navigating College dining halls with restrictions

Colin Pinney

I sat across the table from a friend, who lounged behind a barrier of discarded Vegware™ 96-Series cold cups: the plasticky ones Whitmans’ brings out for the Taco Tuesday virgin margaritas. My stomach growled as I scanned the crowded venue. On Claiming Williams Day, I could not find a single food option low in carbohydrates.

I first discovered the low-carbohydrate lifestyle in the waning days of my first semester at Williams. The first essay I wrote for my humanities class in eighth grade is entitled: “On the Virtues of the Vegan and Paleolithic Diets.” Were I writing that essay today, I would not have not used the word “diet.” The word “diet” has been tainted by decades on decades of magazine articles and self-proclaimed health gurus. “Lifestyle,” while it does conjure up images of those previously mentioned gurus, manages to get at what “diet” used to: defining our own eating habits. Eating lifestyles encompass numerous goals in our lives: being more environmental, re-shaping musculature, obeying religious restrictions and, yes, losing weight.

Low-carbohydrate or keto lifestyles are based on a simple premise: when consuming high amounts of fat and protein, the body is forced to burn fat as fuel instead of carbohydrates. Why would this be a good thing? The logic goes that when humans consume excess carbohydrates, the body is forced to store dietary fat in cells, which can be hard to burn off. This is why fats are considered unhealthy. If you consume few carbohydrates, then your body is forced to only burn fats, which produces ketones–hence the name keto. This is all according to a summary of The Ketogenic Diet by Lyle McDonald. 

As for myself, I know that when I follow a low-carbohydrate lifestyle I feel more energetic and well-rested, although it may be impossible to know for certain. When I do not follow this lifestyle I am not exactly eating healthy, which might confound my analysis. But nevertheless I find that breads, potatoes and other starchy foods can be a downer.

And now it was Claiming Williams Day again. Williams Mobile offered me options from chili to vegan chili to vegetable lasagna. Having had the chili before, I knew that it would be laden with carbs. Forget the lasagna. I would have to nibble on my almonds until dinner-time. But my friend – the one behind the Vegware™ – said: “why don’t we get Mission, it’ll probably be less crowded.” And then I found myself at a different table, glowering at a plate of chili as I snaked my fork through it, avoiding errant beans and other carb-ey pieces.

It is just plain hard to not eat carbohydrates on campus. Ice-cream is on the menu every day, rice and bread are staples of every dining hall, milk and most milk alternatives are either sweetened or already high in carbs. But I do not find the relative dearth of options frustrating. In fact, day-to-day most dining halls do provide something keto-suitable: all three offer fresh eggs for breakfast, Driscoll and Whitmans’ have unsweetened almond milk in the alt-milk section and Mission serves hamburger patties and chicken breast every lunch. Well, almost every lunch, weekdays, sure, but weekends? Who knows what will be keto-edible. Dinners are the worst: on occasion some plain meat is available, but most of the time the meat is slathered in sugary sauce or breaded and fried. As for milk, the unsweetened almond variety frequently runs out, and no other milk option I have seen on-campus could be considered keto-friendly. So it is in the inconsistency of low-carb options that makes me keto-unhappy. 

Getting to the meat of the matter, keto options at Snack Bar are quite expensive. True, you can order a burger with no bun or side upon side of bacon, but the whole burger goes on your swipe, and sides of bacon are not filling. At the very least it would be nice to be able to substitute a wheat based burger bun for an almond-flour based one, even if it were at a nominal price hike. Fried cauliflower at Whitman’s late-night would be a godsend.

The lack of milk and the rarity of meat are annoying, but do not make or break it when it comes to the dining experience. Sundays, on the other hand, are a desolate wasteland. Specifically, continental breakfast. For those of us who are early-risers or at least try to eat breakfast, continental breakfast can be a challenge. But for me and anyone else who avoids carbohydrates, there is little to eat. The only feasible options are straight peanut or almond butter, but by themselves they are not filling, are still relatively carb-heavy and do not constitute a sufficient meal.

I am probably not the person who has it worst when it comes to food at the College. It is very hard to look at any different lifestyle from the outside and know how difficult maintaining that lifestyle might be. I can only imagine how hard it would be to follow a simultaneously low-carb and vegetarian diet. Suffice to say that many different eating lifestyles and restrictions exist, and it would behoove us Ephs to take that into account. If you follow an eating lifestyle that differs from the norm and you have suffered in silence, don’t. The solution might be more inconvenient than eating whatever is available, but that is better than not having any options. Me? I will be nibbling on my almonds.

Colin Pinney ’22 is from Shanghai, China.