At a panel discussion of dietitians recently, the topic of nutrition and dietetics courses attracting students with complicated relationships with food and body was discussed.
And by complicated relationship, I mean complicated across the spectrum of restrained eating, to disordered eating, to clinical eating disorders.
As one panel member shared their story and theory as to why they suspect this occurs; another panel member recollected that no one in their class had an eating disorder, which came across (to me as an audience member) as though eating disorders and disordered eating in nutrition and dietetics students is therefore not that big of an issue.
Let’s just say things got a little tense. In a perfectly respectful, professional, ‘healthy’ debate kind of way of course!
Since finishing my training I have learnt that two of my classmates had an eating disorder. Another has admitted to being a very restrained eater in order to control their weight. That’s three people out of a class of 38. And that’s just those I am aware of….
Even I was not immune to diet culture and the thin ideal.
I distinctly remember going into my nutrition training years ago telling everyone, “Oh, it will be really great to learn this stuff to help others. But even if I never get to help others, at least I will know it for me.”
That ‘stuff’ being weight loss, and ‘knowing it for me’ meant, knowing how I could use it to manipulate and control my weight.
By the time I started my dietetics training, I had found Health At Every Size, Intuitive Eating and the Non-Diet Approach and so my motivation for becoming a dietitian was no longer to help people lose weight.
But I was still hyper-conscious about how my body shape would be perceived by my peers, my supervisors and my patients. Because a ‘good’ dietitian to the rest of the world, was a person in a thin body – dietitian in a fat body surely doesn’t know what they are talking about.
And that, in turn, led me to feel hyper-conscious about what I was packing for lunch and snacks and how THAT would be perceived.
And when I was struggling on my hospital placement and all I had the mental and physical energy to prepare for myself to eat was a Vegemite and cheese sandwich, I felt bad that I wasn’t being a ‘good example’ like my peers who had their salads and nutritionally balanced leftovers for lunch.
So yep, I would say I was also a student with a complicated relationship with food and my body.
Hopefully, you can see from my experience, that having a complicated relationship with food doesn’t have to look like an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa. It is a LOT more subtle. But, that it was still unhelpful and I would even go so far as to say, an unhealthy amount of worrying about food and my body. I was giving food more power than it deserved. I was seeing the food everyone else was eating as ‘good’ and the food I was eating as ‘bad’.
But this underlying constant self-criticism, pre-occupation with what food is going to do to our bodies, judging food as good and bad has become the new ‘normal eating’. In other words, disordered eating thoughts and behaviours are the norm. We can’t see that this way of relating to food, our bodies and health might be a problem, or harmful. And I am curious to know if this may be the reason why that panel member didn’t feel that disordered eating and eating disorders are an issue in nutrition and dietetics students…
What does the research say?
Of course, as a nutrition scientist, I can appreciate that my personal experience only provides anecdotal evidence. Or a n=1 if you want to use research terms.
But research done across 14 countries on this topic has found that 77% of nutrition students felt eating disorders were a concern among their peers.
The prevalence of eating disorders amongst nutrition students has also been found to be higher compared to the rest of the university population (around 18-22% compared to 1-15%).
Multiple studies have also found that the prevalence of binge eating behaviours are higher among students studying nutrition compared to other majors.
Why is that the case?
But to summarise some theories include:
- The complicated relationship with food already exists and studying nutrition gives students an ‘excuse’ to be food and body focused
- Students feel that studying nutrition or dietetics might help them self-manage their eating disorder
- Nutrition science involves a laser-sharp focus on food, nutrients and their impact on the body. This focus can develop an unhealthy obsession in vulnerable students
So, given the evidence, disordered eating among nutrition and dietetics students is most definitely a reality.
What universities do to support students is vital. So is continuing to fight against diet culture and the thin ideal so that students don’t start their education with unrealistic expectations and pressures. Because trust me, the training itself is stressful enough.
Do you agree that disordered eating and eating disorders are more common in nutrition and dietetics students?
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