With all the impressive, challenging activities that occupy a Boston College student’s life, one would think they could take comfort in the constancy of the basics—sleep, relationships, and eating to name a few. So why then, when put into practice, do these tend to turn into the most complicated? Sleep schedules are foiled by the hectic to-dos of a typical week, relationships with friends and family members fluctuate, and food and eating can become major stressors, arguably more than they should.
Every day among friends, problematic language is used to discuss eating habits. Sitting around the table at Eagle’s Nest, phrases like “I can’t believe I ate all that,” or “I ate a Chocolate Bar cookie earlier today, I need to go to the Plex,” are thrown around without consideration of the damaging effects of such a routine, negative outlook on food and eating. Instead of granting themselves a break in the midst of a week filled with classes, paper writing, work, and service, students, perhaps subconsciously, take the organic nature of eating and transform it into a worry.
“As I often say in my yoga classes, a positive outlook is the number one key to leading a healthy and happy life. Negative thoughts, words, and actions are toxic and not healthy, even if they can be motivating in the short run,” says yoga instructor Kelly Sangster, MCAS '17. “Telling yourself, ‘I can't eat this cookie because I am so fat,’ or ‘I am going to be so bloated tomorrow if I don't go run four miles tonight,’ does not lead to a healthy lifestyle or success in reaching a health goal.”
This is not to say that holding oneself accountable to maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a bad thing; according to Sheila Tucker, the Registered Dietitian for the Office of Health Promotion, a nutritionist for BC Dining Services, and a part-time faculty member in the Connell School of Nursing, BC students are health-conscious in a way that is characteristic of their peers at other universities. She views the BC perspective on health as primarily focused on fitness and body image rather than long-term health.
Tucker argues that, in terms of the way BC students discuss food, “the focus relates to trendy food talk (not always on point to science!), talk about food related to their personal body image, and weekend versus weekday food talk.”
Although BC’s health and body consciousness is generally a good thing, Tucker worries that “some students pay too much attention to their nutrition and relate ‘I’ve been good (or bad)’ based on food choices. There is no such thing as good or bad foods, just good and bad diets overall. I encourage students to not put every food choice under a microscope," she says. "Instead, pull back the lens and seek overall balance over days.”
Sangster shares a similar point of view to Tucker, applauding her peers’ attention to health but urging them to “be health-conscious in order to be the best version of yourself. If you are health-conscious for a negative reason or for a reason that doesn't have to do with you," she says, "it can end up hurting you more than helping.”
From a nutritionist’s perspective, the most troubling aspect of BC health culture is the stark difference between weekday and weekend practices, as well as the lack of concern for the long-term implications of unhealthy habits.
“One thing that troubles me about the culture on this campus is the dissonance created between the combination of 'clean' eating mentality and great care students take of their bodies during the week in contrast to the weekend drinking culture that has metabolic consequences for those very same bodies,” Tucker says. “Binge drinking and corresponding binge eating do not balance out with the 'clean' eating and exercising [on] weekdays.”
While there is no bank of health data for BC students on the subject, Tucker has noted that “this campus certainly does have its fair share of disordered eating, meaning students have an unhealthy relationship with food that manifests in one way or another.” Such behaviors include “chronic dieting or overexercising, using unsafe weight loss supplements, pre-occupation with diet or food thoughts, and similar behaviors that are not mentally or physically healthy but do not meet diagnostic criteria of an eating disorder.”
Societal pressure and preconceptions of an idealized body image have been cited as causes for such habits. Sangster recognizes this as a problem, but has her own method of overcoming it.
“Every single body is beautiful and amazing because of what each one does to carry us through our lives every single day. If we can take a step back and view our bodies in that positive light, I guarantee everyone would be significantly happier.” -Kelly Sangster
“I think there's often judgment from others of what you eat, but that's a ‘them problem’ not a ‘you problem.’ I think it stems from an overall societal issue of using negative motivation to achieve health goals,” Sangster says. “I think the best way to avoid this issue is to remember that, to stop taking in the negativity of others, and especially to stop spreading the negativity further.”
Tucker recommends looking into Nourish, BC Dining Services and the Office of Health Promotion’s healthy eating campaign, for general advice on healthy habits. She also is working toward bringing The Body Project to BC, which is an “evidence-based, small group program” which aims to “work on the concept of rejecting the thin ideal and becoming a critical consumer of media that promotes that concept.” To achieve this, Tucker sees a need to “not participate in ‘fat talk’” or other damaging conversation to promote body positivity and self positivity.
Attention to the word choice on campus is a start, but acknowledging the problematic nature of negative thinking, and in turn mindfully practicing positivity, can go even further. In a video by The School of Life, a London-based organization which, according to its website, is “devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture,” the self-critical nature of individuals in today’s society is analyzed and challenged.
“To survive in this high-pressured, crazy world, most of us have to become highly adept at self-criticism,” the video states.
Instead of engaging in such negative practices, the organization argues that “we need to carve out time for an emotional state of which many of us are profoundly suspicious—self compassion.” The video proposes a cure for negative self-talk, which consists of 15 minutes of structured meditation in which one acknowledges and accepts the not-so-great parts of their life.
Among other things, The School of Life wants people to realize that failure is not unique, the things individuals put themselves through on a daily basis are difficult, and “your whole worth is not dependent on external things.”
Sangster has her own words of advice, which she has drawn from her experience with yoga and its emphasis on mindfulness, which she attributes to her greater awareness of her own health and her interest in health.
“First, build an awareness of where you are at and what makes you feel like your best self,” Sangster says. “Next, use your inner positivity and inner motivation as a ‘push’ to always be the best version of yourself. Most importantly, no matter what stage you are at, always practice acceptance and love toward yourself and your body—there's always something to be thankful for.”
“Every single body is beautiful and amazing because of what each one does to carry us through our lives every single day,” Sangster says. “If we can take a step back and view our bodies in that positive light, I guarantee everyone would be significantly happier.”