Fed, but not nourished

On-campus cafeterias contribute to disordered eating

Content warning: eating disorders

The following is a real account of a McGill student’s experiences disordered eating on campus. Names have been changed upon request.

“From what you’ve told me,” Laila’s psychiatrist says while peering at her, “it’s very clear that you have bulimia. You don’t have to necessarily vomit after every meal to have bulimia, but it’s simply the act of balancing between two extremes – binge eating consistently for a few days and then not eating at all for the next few days to compensate for this, or by say – exercising, taking laxatives, things like that.”

Laila almost smiles at first. Her psychiatrist at the McGill clinic sounds like she is reading from a grocery list. She wonders how many other students have been given this exact news on this very sofa. On her way to the Subway in the Arts building (she is doing a significantly lower-calorie version of the Subway diet these days: nothing for breakfast, a six-inch sub for lunch, nothing for dinner, repeat) she calls her parents and tells them about her appointment. They are eating dinner and watching the television. She always binges when she is homesick – she misses the days when her mother would come sit next to her whenever she would insist on skipping a meal, kiss her forehead, and feed her with her own hands, no matter how old she got. Today, Laila is aware of the fact that perhaps one of the main reasons her eating patterns have become so much worse in college is because her main source of food and nutrition is also the place where there are abundant triggers for her disordered eating. This includes the way the stereotypical “skinny” figure is celebrated and strived for among students, as well as the abnormal and unhealthy eating habits that exist on campuses.
The funny thing is, Laila is far more concerned about the fact that this diagnosis has had almost no effect on her. In retrospect, she should have seen it coming. Over winter break, she binged almost every single day. She broke her own record on the last Saturday before winter semester began. In a span of a few hours, Laila had consumed a glass of chocolate milk, a heaped bowl of macaroni and cheese, a bowl of pasta, a cinnamon bun heaped with frosting, a substantial amount of sushi, a bubble waffle, bubble tea and of course, Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream. The implications of this were not clear to Laila, because bingeing is another eating habit that is normalized in a university environment. Around bedtime, she had two glasses of green tea and called it a night.

First semester, her meals consisted of pastas, pizzas, Cokes with every meal, cookies, the four dollar desserts, sometimes a salad, but usually the standard was chicken burgers with cheese and fries instead. All courtesy of the McGill cafeterias, where students with disordered eating have no immediate support and a million available opportunities to, like in Laila’s case, binge.
Watching a small ocean of mayonnaise being poured into her sandwich, Laila thinks to herself: there are two courses of action available to her. The first is to add a few cookies and maybe a bag of chips to your order. Eat to your heart’s content – the greasiest poutine, a large pizza, a kilogram of Nutella. Destroy your body for the momentary satisfaction. Limits are made to be crossed. The meal plan exists for a reason after all – the cafeterias welcome you with all sorts of delights.
The second option is to go home with her Subway sandwich and stick to her diet. Lose all that weight. The objective is to become smaller, but Laila sometimes thinks that the ultimate goal is simply to disappear completely.

A third option has been giftwrapped courtesy of her psychiatrist. Once Laila is referred to the eating disorder program, she will have to meet with a nutritionist who evaluates her situation, discusses it with her psychiatrist, and presents her with a diagnosis. Once this is done, she is likely to be offered the opportunity to attend a psychoeducation class, which will inform her about the different things that trigger eating disorders, and how to prevent them.

Laila finds herself sitting before a nutritionist a few weeks later. There is a glow on the nutritionist’s face, and kindness in her eyes, which make her instantly comforting. Laila opens up to her, answers all her questions, allows herself to be guided to the weighing machine, grimaces with great discomfort as a number appears in that ugly sepia colour. The nutritionist then gives Laila a pamphlet in which to make a note of all her meals. She is supposed to write what food she ate, what time she ate the food, who she ate it with, where it was eaten, whether she had the urge to binge or restrict her intake while she ate, whether she acted on the urge, and of course, the dreaded “thoughts and feelings” section. Laila feels like her most private thoughts are being laid out on a cold hospital bed for an MRI scan to be performed. Her nutritionist smiles at her. She tells Laila that this will be triggering at first, but sometimes that needs to happen in order for recovery to begin. Recovery is an acquired taste, and Laila has failed time and again to develop it.
As she is getting ready to leave, her nutritionist says, “Next session, we’re going to make you a really comprehensive meal plan. It’ll really balance out your life if you slowly begin to integrate it into your diet, not all at once because that’s an unrealistic goal. It’s going to reset your metabolism, your fullness and hunger cues, and over time, your eating will begin to respond to your body rather than your mind.”

“That sounds all very nice in theory,” Laila says, “but I keep thinking to myself that I’d rather just starve myself until I lose a bit of weight. I’m sorry, that was far too honest.”

Her nutritionist smiles. “No, honesty is great. That’s the eating disorder talking. We’re going to make progress.”

For a second Laila believes her. Then the door closes.

That night, Laila sits with a few friends at dinner – one of them is talking about how this is her first proper meal of the week. The rest has all been black coffee, Premier Moisson brownies and junk food from the vending machines. Another friend brings up how “fat” a girl in her class is. Laila stares down at the pieces of penne generously coated with parmesan and oregano, and it has never looked more unappealing to her.

So far, this is what Laila’s progress looks like. When her sister visits, she eats the unhealthiest food. In a span of three days, Laila finishes an extra large jar of Nutella and close to seventy Lindt chocolate balls all by herself (there was a sale at the Lindt shop in Eaton Centre). Then there are a few days where she becomes ferociously committed to healthy eating. She orders salads at restaurants, snacks on Greek yogurt topped with granola, and munches on carrots.

These days, every kind of food is making her nauseous. Yesterday, the first thing she ate all day was yogurt at seven in the evening, followed by a slice of pizza. This has a lot to do with how residence cafeteria has absolutely no healthy options to offer save for a half-empty salad bar station. As for the pizza, this was the only vegetarian, mildly filling option available at the cafeteria across the street. The only other alternative was veal tortellini, which was a few assorted pasta pieces swimming in a bowl of heavy cream; there wasn’t even any chicken left at the grilling station, which happened to be the only truly healthy option that she could eat. A little later, she threw up both the yogurt and the pizza. Admitting to this will be one of the most difficult things Laila has to do, but going an entire day without nourishment had ignited in her a twisted sense of accomplishment. To know you are not gaining weight is enough satisfaction, even if it comes at the cost of your physical and mental wellbeing.

Tomorrow, Laila is going to try and channel through her nausea, eating fresh fruits and vegetables, treating her body to protein. Enriching it, nourishing it, treating it with an almost familial tenderness. She tries to remind herself, your body is your home. Don’t destroy it.
To do this, however, Laila is going to have to walk to the cafeteria in the snow and wait 15 minutes for her grilled chicken, while the freshly prepared pizza (still hot from the oven) practically laughs at her misfortune.

Laila is aware of the fact that perhaps one of the main reasons her eating patterns have worsened in college is because her main source of food and nutrition is also the place where there are abundant triggers for her disordered eating.

Then again, there is a very good chance that Laila will wake up tomorrow and fill herself with thousands of calories, or maybe she will wake up and decide an insufficient five calories are enough. Either way, the cafeteria downstairs has everything she needs. Sugary waffles, slices of fudge, two bite brownies, packs and packs of Doritos, chocolate croissants. It will almost never go according to plan, and that has a lot to do with the immensely triggering temptation that encompasses living upstairs from a cafeteria where the only (mildly) filling (and not at all nutritious) option is the occasional macaroni and cheese that tastes vaguely like plastic.

However, there is a silver lining. The lady who works at Laila’s residence cafeteria takes an active interest in the food options that are available. She tells Laila about the protein options and the freshly made vegetable paninis she wants to add to the cafe. Sure, she also tells Laila about how she is restocking the two-bite brownies, but where there is a demand, a supply needs to be generated. What matters is that there are people who are actively enthusiastic about, and concerned with, how well-nourished the students are – this is one small mercy in Laila’s story, which is painfully common and largely unaddressed at McGill.

McGill cafeterias urgently need to work to improve the quality of their food. Although the grilling stations and the salad bars are a good place to start, more sandwich options can be introduced, along with a larger selection of salads and vegetables. Healthier soup options can be made available, as opposed to just one (usually a meat-based potage.) Little things can really go a long way. From the existing budget that we use to feed the students unhealthy food, we can invest in more healthy food options. Admittedly, healthy food options can sometimes be more expensive, especially at the cafeteria where a banana will cost you a dollar, when in any grocery store, an entire bunch of bananas cost a dollar. A big bag of chips costs five to six dollars. On the other hand, a pizza is going to cost significantly less than a grilled meat with salad, but the difference it makes to your health is priceless. Furthermore, many students may not have the means to spend too generously on food, and therefore the exclusion of affordable healthy food options at the cafeteria does a great disservice.
Presently, McGill cafeterias cater more to what a student wants to eat than what a student needs to eat. Furthermore, deals like “cookie madness” make it increasingly difficult for a student to restrict how much food they are taking in. However, initiatives like “Meatless Mondays” featuring only vegetarian options, can go a long way if similar options can be developed to generate enthusiasm among students to eat healthier and smarter throughout the week. Instead of the occasional hot chocolate station, fresh fruit juices can be brought in instead. Charts and banners illustrating what a healthy, balanced meal should look like should be placed at every counter, with the intention of educating the student about health and reminding them that it should be a priority for them.

According to the nutritionists at the eating disorder program, a healthy meal should be fifty per cent vegetables, 25 per cent protein and 25 per cent carbohydrates. In the “hot meal” option at the cafeteria, the “main dish” is usually a carbohydrate option like pasta or lasagna, or sometimes a protein option, while the sides are usually carbohydrates as well, along with a small bowl of salad. Tomorrow, take a stroll in one of the cafeterias and see for yourself how many students miss out on the essential components of healthy eating. In this environment that they exist in, unhealthy eating is not only normalised, but it is celebrated in the content of memes all over the internet or in the bond that develops between two people when they split a twelve-inch Double pizza at three in the morning.