Emily Jennings: Lack of on-campus food options could trigger eating disorders

Throughout the semester, students have dealt with a number of changes to food options because of GW’s new dining plan. Most students’ main challenge is that they have access to fewer dining venues. That can make it hard to keep regular meal times because college schedules are erratic and any inconsistency can make it tough for students to make plans to eat. But for students who are suffering from eating disorders, it’s more than just an inconvenience – it could lead them to a battle against mental illness.

GW implemented a new dining system this year in which students have an allotted amount of money to spend at local eateries both on and off campus. This replaced a system wherein freshmen were allotted a certain amount of money only to be spent at the main dining hall, J Street, and a separate allotment for local eateries. This year, officials shut down J Street and promised that restaurants would open in the basement of District House to fill the dining hall’s void.

But the promised new restaurants have not been completed, and though J Street was not wildly popular, getting rid of a main dining hall all together without an immediate replacement left students without a dependable, accessible place to eat.

Students have openly complained about the new dining system because the lack of a dining hall gives them the feeling that there are fewer places to eat on campus, but the lack of food options could lead to serious problems for students already prone to restrictive eating. Just as academic stress can cause anxiety, a lack of food options can have a severe impact on those who have previously dealt with eating disorders.

Eating disorders, specifically those that involve extreme dietary restrictions and calorie counting, make people suffering feel that life is better when they are thinner, so they keep themselves from eating. People with eating disorders can be perfectionists and overachievers, and counting calories or skipping meals becomes a way for them to cope with external stress. A number of stressors could easily trigger people recovering into relapse, and a scarcity of dining options on campus is dangerous for them.

A limited number of dining venues can be the determining factor between whether or not to eat for people with restrictive eating disorders. If eating is too much effort for them, then it no longer becomes a priority, which is why it is so important for people in recovery to have easy access to a variety of food. In an environment where students must actively work to find dining options, it is almost too easy to blow off eating. Eventually, they may may fall back into an unhealthy or restrictive eating routine.

In addition to a lack of options, the locations of the restaurants that take GWorld cards are not always easily accessible. For example, Thurston Hall, which houses 1,116 freshmen, is within reach of very few dining options. And those that are close by to Thurston, like Carvings and Cafe Aria, are not very healthy. For someone with an eating disorder, that could be just another excuse to avoid eating. Incoming freshmen who have never lived on their own must take initiative to find their own meals, but for those who are recovering, it makes transitioning to college harder.

Paula Atkinson, a professor of health and wellness who teaches a course on weight and society, said that a lack of food options on campus could create an unhealthy environment for people in recovery because it triggers them into not wanting to eat.

“A situation in which a person in recovery doesn’t have enough food options can be triggering, especially in early recovery,” Atkinson said in an email.

Eating disorders are diseases of the mind, just like depression or anxiety, and need to be dealt with accordingly. GW does have mental health facilities designed to help students deal with these serious mental issues.

But in order to fix the problem for good, GW needs to make dining options more readily accessible. Officials need to make it easy for students to grab food throughout the day, and right now, students are hindered from eating.

Emily Jennings, a junior majoring in communications, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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