ADAM PULVER | UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

a The greatest health problem on the Tufts campus is not obesity. Looking at the global “obesity epidemic,” this makes sense. Tufts students are disproportionately from the middle and upper classes, white and educated. We have free access to a gym, a wide variety of nutritious (and not-so-nutritious) foods to choose from on- and off-campus. We live in a relatively friendly environment to stay ‘slim’ as far as colleges in the United States go.

However, there is a large group of students on this campus (aided by infiltrators from the Nutrition School) who are working hard to keep you skinny. They produce features in this and other publications, push for change in our dining facilities and work to get you into the gym. Under the term “fitness” or “health,” they encourage you to modify your eating habits and go to the gym more. If you eat less pizza, run a few miles, and drop a few pounds, you will be fit.

But do these campaigns make anyone healthier? The small number of students who do need to lose weight will not necessarily do so because of an occasional supplement to the Daily, nor should they. Attempting to lose weight on one’s own with the assistance of pop nutrition info (such as, pizza is healthy if you put veggies on it) is rarely effective. Weight loss, when it is actually needed for health reasons – not so you can squeeze into that hot new halter top – is serious and difficult, and individualized.

These ‘fitness’ programs do have an impact on the Tufts population, though. This impact is visible if you watch the salad bar at the Campus Center during a Monday or Wednesday open block or the gym any afternoon. These spots are not filled with fat kids. There are girls with fine BMIs, boys with plenty of muscle mass, aiming for the perfect body.

Proponents of “nutrition awareness” claim that this is not their target audience, and that anorexics and those with other image and eating disorders would exist on this campus regardless. But the nutrition awareness programs promote conceptions of health that are incomplete. Skinny does not equal healthy.

Most negative health effects are only correlated with obesity and being overweight. Being heavy, in and of itself, is not a negative health effect, particularly when BMIs are at the lower end of the “overweight” spectrum. But yes, being fat does increase your risk for a number of health issues. However, there are far greater risks from other health behaviors students engage in on campus.

Eating healthily and going to the gym does not guarantee health. No matter how skinny you are, binge drinking is not a healthy activity. Nor is snorting adderol. And no matter how skinny they get you, cocaine and diet pills are also not conducive to a healthy lifestyle.

On an image-conscious campus in an image-conscious society, weight is focused on because it is so visually apparent. Popping a pill in the bathroom may not hurt your social life, but being thirty pounds overweight certainly will.

Beyond misleading students in their notions of health by focusing on weight, the fat warriors tend to neglect the fact that the health effects of weight tend to follow a bell curve. Weights above AND below normal tend to have serious negative health consequences. Contrary to popular opinion, you can be too skinny.

Anorexia is a far greater problem on this campus than obesity is. However, by pushing people to watch what they eat and exercise more, we are merely encouraging this trend. White, middle-class females in their teens and early twenties are the highest risk group for anorexia and eating disorders, and this is the largest subpopulation on this campus. Responsible health programming must take this into account.

Unfortunately, some of the health education work going on on-campus is done by people with limited health training. Each student or expert comes from their own narrow area of expertise, and often fail to appreciate the holistic effects of their work. While I can appreciate the specific passions these individuals have, in conducting programming for an extremely diverse population, they must match these individual passions with the realities of the community they serve. While these ‘food fighters’ have noble intentions, they do not consider the wide range of ways in which readers can perceive their writings.

On this campus, talk of “nutrition” reverberates as “lose weight.”

Take, for example, new columnist Marissa Beck’s most recent column (“Eat This!” Oct. 6) on eating healthily at Merchants On Points System (MOPS) restaurants. A reader commented on the Daily Web site extolling the article, saying “Losing that extra five pounds will now be much easier.” Ms. Beck did not talk about weight loss in her piece at all. But the connotation of healthy eating in our society is eating to lose weight. Anyone who educates about nutrition must consider this. The reader on the Web site was an older individual, not a Tufts student, but who knows if losing five pounds was indeed healthy for her? Five pounds rarely substantially changes ones health, but constant yo-yo dieting can.

The fitness programs on campus are not comparable in purpose or strategy to programs like “Shape Up Somerville.” Those programs are preventive, focused and employ medical and health experts in working to head off a major health program in a community in need. Tufts is not undergoing an obesity epidemic.

As we work to eliminate fat on campus, we make it more socially stigmatized to be overweight and encourage disordered eating. The more we make being overweight a problem, the more concern people will have about what they eat – and that is not a good thing for the Tufts population. Weight is just one of many components of an individual’s health. By using “nutrition,” “fitness” and “healthy eating” interchangeably, we do a disservice to the community, and to its overall health.

Adam Pulver is a senior majoring in Community Health and Political Science. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]


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