I recently found myself eating dinner with friends at a macrobiotic, vegan, Japanese restaurant because it was the only place that could accommodate each of my friends' dietary restrictions. One cut out carbs years ago to lose weight, another is pursuing a vegan diet to stay thin. When my boyfriend asked for sugar with his tea, the waitress admonished him and offered all-natural maple syrup instead. Since when did diets become so complicated? Using eating excuses to lose weight – like eating gluten-free regardless of whether you have Celiac Disease – is becoming a common practice on college campuses. We turned to Connie Diekman, Registered Dietitian, past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Director of University Nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis to learn more.
Do eating excuses lead to weight loss?
Eating excuses are popular on college campuses because they seem like a quick fix – just cut out a certain food group and bam, you'll be able to zip up your sorority formal dress again... right? Not quite. According to Diekman, “These diets will often lead to weight loss, but are the girls healthy once they've lost the weight? The answer, of course, often is no. They are missing some key nutrients. In addition, it is possible that they have lost muscle mass, not fat mass, so they might be a lower weight, but not a healthier weight.”
While the weight might come off for a short period of time, you're not likely to maintain your weight loss in the long run.
Why are girls choosing to diet this way?
When JoEllen, a senior at Tulane, wanted to lose 10 pounds, she turned to the Internet for research. She discovered sources claiming that gluten and dairy caused weight gain and acne, the two body issues she struggled the most with. Despite negative allergy tests to both gluten and dairy, she says, “I genuinely believed that these two products were the root of all my body issues. I even told a number of my friends that I couldn't go out to dinner since I 'found out' I was allergic to these products.” Although she maintained her diet for months, she never lost the ten pounds.
Of course, it's completely normal to try a low-carb or low-fat diet to drop a few pounds or to maintain your weight. And no one would ever criticize girls who exclude gluten, dairy, sugar, or any other type of food for medical reasons, such as Celiac Disease, lactose intolerance, or diabetes. But there does seem to be a trend of girls who have adopted these eating practices in order to lose weight drastically or revamp their whole lifestyle – these aren't girls looking to drop just five pounds.
Diekman, who consults college girls about nutrition on the Washington University in St. Louis campus, says, “As I see patients here on campus, there does seem to be an increase in girls who are using an acceptable diet – vegetarian being the big one – to justify their need to lose weight due to body image concerns.”
It's not just girls on college campuses who are eating this way. Open any tabloid and you'll see celebs praising their new diet du jour, whether it's Miley Cyrus cutting out gluten or Beyonce's famous Master Cleanse. Veganism, too, is taking Hollywood by storm. Lea Michele, Olivia Wilde, and even Betty White stick to vegan diets. Does their influence – and enviable bodies (hey, if we can look like Betty when we're ninety, we'll be happy!) – have something to do with college girls turning vegan?
“[The trend] also ties to what they see occurring with celebrities who try these diets and lose weight,” confirms Diekman.
What should you tell your friends?
For many girls, it's easier to adopt a certain eating excuse and stick to it rather than explaining to friends that they're trying to lose weight or that they're working on limiting certain foods, especially when dieting comes with a stigma. According to a May 2012 survey by Glamour, thin women are viewed as “conceited” or “superficial” eight times as often as heavy women, “vain” or “self-centered” four times as often, and “bitchy,” “mean,” and “controlling” more than twice as often. Women are quick to judge others; it's no fun to get slapped with the “bitch” label just because you're trying to slim down.