With the new Pi Restaurant opening this Semester, along with the “New Year New Me” program, Aoife Mawn takes a look behind the messages around healthy eating.
The science buildings sole restaurant, Pi, reopened after renovations at the end of January, with healthy food options and weight loss as their number one selling points. Riding on the New Year's resolutions train, staff handed out various leaflets and booklets that gave tips on how to lose weight most effectively, food diaries to help you count calories, and advertisements for high fibre low-calorie muck. All of this fanfare focused solely on the students physical health; wildly ignoring, and perhaps even damaging, their mental wellbeing. It’s irresponsible to open a “healthy” restaurant if the mantra is to convince all your patrons that they need to lose weight.
Often, it seems, New Year’s resolutions focus solely on our ambitions to lose weight, get into a certain dress size, clear up our skin or go to the gym four times a week, all to look better, without ever really thinking about the slippery slope that can be for some people. Eating disorders can manifest in someone at any age, and in any social group. They often strike the people that seem to have their lives most in order. Anorexia nervosa also has a higher death rate than any other mental illness, as what begins as a mental fixation soon develops into physical illness. Various studies carried out into the causes of eating disorders have been inconclusive, but with a spike in diagnoses in recent years, social media and an ever increasing obsession with having the perfect life and body seem to be major culprits.
This is precisely why Pi’s new mantra is so disheartening. One of the many “healthy” leaflets that were handed out at the launch was a program book that contained the quote “aim for 1-2lbs (0.5-1kg) weight loss per week - this is a safe rate of weight lose and you are more likely to keep the weight off than if you lose it more quickly”. There was no mention of this being a choice, it is simply assumed that everyone is and should be trying to lose weight. For someone who is struggling with disordered eating, this kind of wording and messaging, especially as it is so heavily pushed, could be extremely damaging. If this person is already underweight, losing two pounds a week could be dangerous, and it should not be advertised as the best way to keep weight off. Also, once the disorder has fully taken hold, it is hard for one to differentiate the sheer amount of weight they are losing. Worth noting too, is the fact that there is no information in the booklet about positive weight gain, muscle tone or the psychological benefits of eating healthier. It is all about being as skinny as possible, it seems.
On the back of the program, they give details on how to contact nutritionists, mentioning how they are committed to “delivering a service that will contribute to the health and wellbeing of all our customers”, without ever mentioning how the material in their literature could be unsettling or triggering for someone who is struggling with body dysmorphia or disordered eating. They also advise limiting our fat intake “so it doesn’t impact on our waistlines!” That is all well and good, but instead of focusing on body image, emphasis could just as easily have been put on high cholesterol levels or heart disease, both of which are also caused by high fat intake.
In a university filled with stressed students looking for coping mechanisms, this kind of messaging is risky. Often, eating disorders develop from a need for control, which people think restricting food can give them. By telling students they need to cut down on certain nutrients to avoid weight gain, they are ultimately risking students going too far and completely cutting out food groups for fear of getting fat. Instead of discussing restriction and cutting down on what would be considered ‘bad’ food in order to avoid weight gain, Pi should promote the ways in which a healthy diet is beneficial to our mental health instead. Why is it simply our physical shape that is being focused on as most important?
What Pi should be doing is promoting an all round healthy and balanced lifestyle that is achievable for students. It is simply not feasible to expect a student to consistently follow a healthy routine every single day. In reality, we should be aiming to live as healthily as possible, but not beating ourselves up if we have a ‘pizza and junk food on the couch’ kind of day. Balance is what is really key, and instead of focusing solely on keeping thin, fit and uber healthy, all for the sake of vanity, we should be trying to choose the options that we know will make us happier in the long run. Often, eating disorders develop through an obsession with healthy eating, also known as orthorexia. This makes family and friends think that they are simply in a focused pursuit of a healthy body, when in reality this quest is a disguise for anorexia or other eating disorders. Through a promotion of fixating on eating clean and obsessively healthy in order to look your best, this new strategy by Pi is straddling a dangerous line, one that is only too easily crossed.