‘Finding Peace With Food’: Exploring the effects of eating on your mental and physical health

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Dietician, nurse practitioner, and wellness blogger Robyn Nohling lectures about the relationship between eating habits and mental well-being to students on Wednesday afternoon. (Maggie Chafouleas/The Daily Campus)

The University of Connecticut Student Health & Wellness and Women’s Center presented “Finding Peace with Food and Your Body Size to Improve Physical and Mental Wellbeing” to a packed room in McHugh Hall Wednesday night. The discussion centered around the mental and physical impacts of striving for the “ideal body” and how to curate a healthy relationship with food.

The presentation was led by Robyn Nohling, a registered dietitian and family nurse practitioner who specializes in eating disorders and disordered eating.

Nohling told the audience she wanted them to leave with “knowledge of the impact eating, exercise, sleep and stress have on your health and wellbeing and therefore academic performance” and “an awareness of your own current relationship with food, exercise and sense of self.” She also stressed the importance of implementing realistic, practical ways you can care for yourself as a college student, which is more important now than ever.

“The prevalence of eating disorders has increased dramatically over the past few years, especially in… college students,” Nohling said. “Nearly one in five of college students have had or have an eating disorder.”

In addition to this, she explained that 35 percent of “normal” dieters progress to disordered eating and 20 to 25 percent of those then progress to having partial or full-blown eating disorders.

“The transition from home to college is a vulnerable time,” Nohling said. “Many people develop eating disorders as a way to manage anxiety and gain control over their lives.”

Students face decreased structure and parental support, loneliness, uncertainty about their future and a variety of new stressors, such as rigorous courses and increased independence. All of these factors can influence someone’s mental state and decision making.

“Food is supposed to be pleasurable!” Nohling exclaimed. “One thing to think about is that eating should be a balanced activity that isn’t the best part of your day, but also isn’t the worst part of your day.”

She explained that you should eat based on internal cues and maintain food neutrality, which is the idea that no food is extremely good or bad for you. In addition to this, you should always try to maintain balance by eating three meals a day with diverse food groups.

“Give yourself full permission to eat any or all foods at any or all times,” Nohling said.

She also stressed the importance of respecting your body and not using food to manipulate your body size. One of the big lessons she focused on was the true meaning of a healthy body image.

“Having a healthy body image does not mean you love your body,” Nohling said. “Rather, it’s thinking of your body less or more neutrally because you’re too busy creating and living a meaningful life aligned with your values.”

She explained that she loved her husband and son, so she thinks about them constantly, but that isn’t how you should be thinking about your body; it shouldn’t be on your mind at all hours of the day.

Nohling went on to explain the mental and physical impact of dieting.

Mentally, you can end up feeling isolated and irritable. You may also experience poorer moods, depression and/or anxiety, difficulty focusing and lethargy.

The impact on your physical health can be much more diverse, and she spent a large part of the presentation talking about the science behind dieting. The main point was that stress vastly affects your body’s ability to do its job, and paying close attention to your diet, having disordered eating habits or having an eating disorder greatly contribute to this stress. Simply monitoring your food intake, without making any changes, activates stress in your body.

Because of this, Nohling emphasized the importance of sleep and mentality. Sleep allows for our bodies to reset and heal, which is crucial to lowering our stress levels, while mentality can affect our bodies in a variety of ways.

“Our mind is super powerful and it can actually manifest physical sensations,” Nohling said. “We call it the Nocebo effect. If you truly believe you are going to experience something when you do something, like with eating, for example, our mind is powerful enough where it could actually exert that effect, even if the food didn’t actually cause that.”

For example, if you believe a certain food will make you sick, then it might actually make you sick.

In addition to this, Nohling said, irregular eating patterns can lead to irregular menstrual periods or amenorrhea, which is when your periods stop altogether. In men, they can cause low levels of testosterone, decreased muscle mass and decreased erectile function. As a whole, people can experience infertility, poor mood, low sex drive, fatigue and decreased bone mass.

The room in McHugh was so packed that some students had to stand, and the talk was well-received by its audience members.

“I thought it was fabulous because I love that there was a scientific background to everything and it wasn’t all about body positivity,” said Victoria Picard, an eighth-semester biology major.

“It was very holistic,” Shayna Deluca, an eighth-semester nutritional science major, said. “It touched on kind of all the levels of body image and eating.”

“It was a nice outlook on eating and how to eat in a way that is healthy,” Nich Roche, a fourth-semester civil engineering and German double major, said. “It basically talks about how you need to not eat in a way to change your body but eat in a way to respect yourself.”

At the end, Nohling explained the importance of examining your relationship with food and provided some questions to do so, including: “Does how you eat on a given day impact your self-esteem and how you feel about yourself?,” “Does your eating patterns impact your social life?” and “Does it make it hard for you to interact with friends, family or your peers?”

She explained that we live in a diet-centered culture, so these feelings are common, but it might be worthwhile to reexamine or explore some of your thought processes.

If you or someone you care about is concerned about their eating habits or may be struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, UConn Student Health and Wellness has a team who can help. In addition, Nutrition Services can be contacted at (860) 486-0771.


Courtney Gavitt is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at courtney.gavitt@uconn.edu.

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