UCLA Has An Eating Disorder

By Julianne Lempert

I want to tell a story about a quesadilla. What I consumed this one day at Bruin Plate was, in retrospect, not shocking coming from this designated “healthy” dining hall. B Plate purposefully “edits” normal dishes. They take a food and reduce it to the lowest calorie state it can possibly inhabit without having to disregard the food’s name. This quesadilla I consumed—a generous designation—contained mashed brussels sprouts, two slivers of a red bell pepper, encased in a toasted whole wheat tortilla. You know, the classic Mexican way. Silly me, expecting a quesadilla with cheese.

A quesadilla does not have to be filled with brussels sprouts to make it acceptable to consume. It is okay to “just” eat a quesadilla. A quesadilla is a food that exists; it does not need an edit. Brownies do not need to be made of zucchini, as their menu boasts. Chocolate is not a bad word, B Plate. If students want zucchini, they can mosey on down to The Farmstand across the dining hall. Students go to the dessert table to eat dessert, just like the false “quesadilla” pretenses that unfortunately led me to this dining hall in the first place. Cheese is not a crime, B Plate.

Flash forward to the afternoon. I’m sitting in my eating disorder check-up appointment in Santa Monica, because I could not get an appointment at the Westwood location due to its overflowing number of patients. Numbers are rising and countless clinics are above capacity. Individuals with eating disorders are going unmonitored, untreated, and unsupported for several months.

About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men battle eating disorders (EDs) in college. Those are the diagnosed numbers, and the national ones. We’re living in Los Angeles: the zenith of toxicity and the city with the highest ED rates in the nation. Knowing LA’s endless diet trends, “low-cal” restaurants, and the rampant fatphobic influencer culture, this is not a surprise.

On the UCLA app that students use to check the dining hall menus for the day, there is a daily “Nutrition Tip” blurb at the bottom of the page. These give ostensibly helpful facts and recommendations to guide students in their eating choices. They shove unsolicited advice onto students, giving “quick way[s] to lower your calories,” encouraging students to research the menus’ ingredients, and make a plan of what they are going to eat before they enter the dining hall. The tips remind students how many calories are in potato chips, and insist on snacks like baby carrots instead. They can’t even stop themselves from lecturing about salads, let alone potato chips––hey kids, ”go easy on the creamy salad dressings.” UCLA says it plainly: “enjoy your food, but eat less.” Not only do they have no basis for the need for this action, they have no right to say this to us. I paid for an education, not an eating disorder.

UCLA unilaterally demanding us to eat less is the opposite of helpful. UCLA blindly encourages unhealthy restriction when they have no idea how much we eat, how much we weigh, or our medical state. It is far more likely that these “tips” are falling on the ears of students struggling with eating disorders, rather than obesity. Additionally, not all obese people want to receive tips about eating habits, doctors should be the primary advisors in weight loss journeys, and eating disorders extend far beyond anorexia.

Speaking from personal experience, eating disorder recovery at UCLA is miserable. And we all know what UCLA means by “eat less.” We see it everyday. When B Plate serves shrimp, we are given two pieces. Two shrimps, two tiny triangles of tofu, two tablespoons of mashed potatoes. At Epicuria, I have to embarrassingly ask for three servings of the pasta just to make sure my stomach doesn’t grumble 20 minutes after I leave. Many dining halls have “sample plant-based menu” signs plopped onto each table. I totaled up these foods, and found that their ideal meal plan for students contains 1,463 calories. This is roughly the daily recommended value for a male child ages four to eight. Ah, severe weight loss in the name of environmental sustainability and “health.”

While waiting to order at the Study kiosks, a massive sign stares you down, hurtling dozens of eating instructions towards students who never asked. The Study sign says to “reduce portions” and “emphasize calorie quality over quantity.” Yet, you can’t just eat 500 “high-quality” calories a day. You need the quantity. It doesn’t matter how healthy the food is, you cannot survive without so-called “calorie quantity.” UCLA incentivizes students to reduce their portions and dive head first into micros and macros—if UCLA isn’t an eating disorder pipeline, I don’t know what is.

In the name of health, UCLA is risking its students’ lives. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness, with a new death occurring from the direct result of an eating disorder every 52 minutes in the United States. Aside from the direct, physical health complications, more than a quarter of people with eating disorders attempt suicide.

In the ED epicenter of the country, UCLA stands complicit. Promoting healthy eating is noble, but a calorie-centered, all-or-nothing approach quickly turns toxic. UCLA should either disband its Nutrition Tips or change the rhetoric entirely. These tips could be wonderful if they read like, “bars with nuts are a great way to get protein on the go!” or “did you know that leafy greens can prevent cancer?” But these are not the Nutrition Tips that UCLA is––no pun intended––feeding their students.

Eating intuitively and in a balanced manner is the way to go. Unless UCLA plans to push this messaging, I don’t want to hear what they have to say about my food, my body, or my life.

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