The digital diet

How Twitter, TikTok and diet apps exacerbate the culture of undereating among college students

 Editor’s note: This article contains offensive language. 

When Olivia Stickel started at ASU in fall 2018, she strayed away from the path typically followed by college freshmen. 

Instead of being cooped up in the Hassayampa Academic Village or Manzanita Hall, she lived with her two older sisters in an apartment just off campus. She went without a meal plan, opting for grocery shopping instead.

But even with access to a full kitchen, Stickel, now a sophomore marketing major, still got stuck in the “vicious” eating cycle familiar to college students. 

Often caught between cultural and financial pressures to either not eat or eat cheaply, many students struggle with perfecting healthy eating habits when they first enter college.

When faced with cultural references to the “freshman 15” or forgoing eating altogether, Stickel got stuck somewhere in the middle. 

“When I eat something, it's always something bad because that's all that I'm offered. And so it's just a vicious cycle of me not wanting to eat because I know I'll eat badly and then getting so hungry because I’m not eating,” Stickel said.

But references to the “freshman 15” are statistically unsubstantiated and hide a dangerous culture of undereating among college students. This culture is further perpetuated and normalized by new social media and dieting apps.

History

The famed “freshman 15” started five pounds lighter and goes back about 40 years. 

The American Medical Journal found in 1985 that on average, women gain around 8.8 pounds over the course of college. 

The study was the first of its kind, though The New York Times referenced college weight gain in a profile on Jodie Foster four years earlier in 1981. The article noted that during her first few weeks at Yale, even Foster put on the “freshman 10.” 

About 10 years later, a slightly more catchy “freshman 15” appeared on the cover of Seventeen Magazine in August 1989. In bright green lettering, the headline offered tips to battle the mythic 15 pounds. 

Other teenybop and health magazines got ahold of the term, and the phenomenon caught fire from there, though widely unsubstantiated.

A professor at the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Oklahoma found that the popularization of the term in newspapers, journals and magazines largely increased between the late 1990s and 2006. 

By 2006, the term had been referenced in over 50 articles. 

Though widely referenced in publications, the “freshman 15” remains highly debated and inconsistent across a number of studies. 

According to a 2015 study by the Preventive Medicine Reports on weight gain and health in college freshmen, students gained an average of 2.4 pounds within the first three months of school. 

A 2016 study by an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Vermont found that undergraduate students gained about three pounds in their first year. 

Other researchers compiled and compared peer-reviewed articles and research to find an average among the sea of averages. The number ranged from three to four pounds, nowhere near the promised 15. 

As far as causes for weight gain, an article by Verywell Mind attributed the hike in weight to binge drinking, unhealthy eating habits and stress from school — all of which have been heavily injected into popular culture. 

Overeating in Pop Culture

In pop culture, the broke college student forgoes health in exchange for cost-friendly eating alternatives and wild nights out.

In Asher Roth’s song “I Love College,” he immortalized the lifestyle most college freshmen expect with pointed lyrics like, “Pass out at three, wake up at 10, go out to eat then do it again,” or “I can get pizza a dollar a slice.”

Imagined scenarios show freshmen hunched over styrofoam cups of Top Ramen and a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in search of an inkling of sustenance. 

Other stereotypes include classics like the 2 a.m. pizza binge, the famed Taco Bell stop after a night of heavy drinking and, of course, the daily visit to the dining hall soft serve machine. 

Problems begin when the cycle of binge eating and a resulting sense of shame become the norm. 

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, a binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. It is also one of the newest, as it was formally recognized in 2013. 

But the newest contemporary culture shift in college eating habits is on the other side of the spectrum.  

Shift to Undereating

Though shielded with just the right amount of satire, a number of trends on Twitter and TikTok reveal the reality of undereating among young people. Internet memes now show more about college eating habits than Roth’s rap song ever could.

Some of the most glaring examples of undereating in young people include trends like subbing an actual meal for a large iced coffee or “eating sleep” for both breakfast and dinner.

Most Twitter jokes running the gamut on food deprivation receive thousands of likes, retweets and replies like, “This is definitely me,” and, “Never related to something more.”

On TikTok, the trend veers out of satire territory and into something much more real. 

Though the posts rarely wander into blatant anorexia or bulimia, the behaviors of many social media influencers wander into other, lesser-known eating disorders. 

Christina Scribner, an instructor at the College of Health Solutions and nutrition therapist, recognized that these behaviors fall under avoidant restrictive food intake disorder or unspecified feeding and eating disorders. 

“They're often like a masquerade party. People can go around with eating disorders. Some people see them as looking extremely healthy and fit, but what appears on the outside often isn't true on the inside,” Scribner said.  

Melody Pierce, founder of ASU Eating Disorder Recovery and Awareness, sees the internet joke as both a way of coping and a call for help.

“Those types of jokes come from a place of pain,” Pierce said. 

Stickel believes internet jokes help normalize unhealthy eating habits.

“It's what you see in other people that helps you reinforce your own beliefs. When all you see is self-deprecating jokes like, ‘I'm just not going to eat tonight,’ it not only is masking your problem, but it's making other people mask theirs,” Stickel said. 

On both TikTok and Twitter, many users offer tips to lose weight that mimic or lead to more severe disordered eating habits. Some examples include detox drinks, meal plans consisting of lettuce, water and a light snack — ice chips covered in Tajín. 

One extreme diet video garnered over 400 thousand likes. 

“Social media, in particular, can play both sides. We choose what’s on our feed so I always encourage people to have their feeds reflect our world,” Pierce said. “Influencers need to realize more of the active role that they play in other people’s lives and to make sure that what they are presenting is real and inclusive.”

Social media trends tend to translate into real eating schedules and unhealthy habits that are further exacerbated when dieting and calorie counting apps like MyFitnessPal and Lose It! come into the picture. And currently, MyFitnessPal has 19.1 million registered users according to the website. 

The reality is something between the “freshman 15” and iced coffee meal replacements. 

“I find that college students are spending more and more time thinking about their bodies and counting energy in and out of their bodies,” Scribner said. “It tends to lead people into being obsessed with a numbers game.”

A 2017 study found links between calorie tracking and eating disorder attitudes and behaviors. 

“I never recommend tracking apps just because I know there is an obsession that can quickly develop. So instead, focusing on what makes us feel good inside and out is my top priority,” Pierce said.

Prevalence at ASU

A survey by Sun Devil Fitness and Health found that 46.6% of ASU students said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their physical appearance. 

The same survey also found that 64.1% of ASU students were either trying to lose or gain weight. The survey also stated that, “Of those trying to lose weight, 86.6% were using diet and/or exercise as their strategy.” Additionally, 6.4% reported they had experienced an eating disorder or problem within the last year.

There are a number of resources available on campus for students suffering from eating disorders. 

Eating Disorder Recovery and Awareness at ASU is in the process of rebuilding its membership. Currently, the club is at about 15 members. 

Megan Bleam, a senior studying psychology and nutrition and president of EDRA, said the program is modeled after the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program. 

Bleam herself suffered from an eating disorder in high school. She hopes to use her story to help other struggling students.

“With an eating disorder, you don't really like yourself too much. So you isolate yourself because the mentality behind that is if you don't love yourself, then you believe, ‘Who will?’” Bleam said. “That's when you need to be receiving the support. That’s when you need to be sitting next to someone, even if you’re not talking. Just having that company is huge.”

Bleam hopes to make the organization an accessible and accepting resource for all students. 

“To have that safe place for men and women on campus to come to and fall back on when they are having a hard day or when they're having a great day talk about the highs, talk about the lows and talk about the in-betweens. Because once you start this process of recovery, it's not all good days, it's good days, okay days and sh—y days,” Bleam said.

Though unhealthy eating habits are often veiled with jokes and cultural stigmas, Stickel believes students need to come to terms with the severity of the norm. 

“If you find yourself not eating or eating a lot at one time, you can’t just blame it on college. There’s something more going on,” Stickel said. “Problems are still problems, no matter if you're a college student.” 


Reach the reporter at kiera10riley@gmail.com or follow @kiera_riley on Twitter.

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