There are countless things to be celebrated during this year’s National Nutrition Month. That’s because the 2022 theme, Celebrate a World of Flavors, puts the focus on delicious cuisines and rich food cultures across the globe.

Beyond the fun, National Nutrition Month is also meant to help people develop habits that encourage a healthy relationship with food, a goal that resonates with many students at Barnard. According to a fall 2021 survey by the Student Government Association, 42.7% of 468 respondents indicated they had struggled with or are currently struggling with disordered eating. And 41.8% of 509 respondents stated that they feel pressure to restrict their eating in Barnard dining halls. 

In response, Barnard’s Eating Disorder Team — a multidisciplinary group dedicated to caring for students with disordered eating — are answering questions submitted by students about disordered eating, from what causes it to how they can recognize it, and offering resources at the College that can help students with maintaining healthy eating habits. To that end, the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being — Barnard’s new centralized hub for all wellness-related initiatives across campus — is committed to supporting the entire College community with a 360-degree perspective of personal well-being: physical, mental, and financial. And while March is officially National Nutrition Month, every day of the year is one when a person can strive to have a positive connection with food. 

Keep reading to learn what students wanted to know and what the experts want to make sure we all understand about nutrition and how to stay healthy. 

Student Dining Room

What is the definition of disordered eating?

Kathleen Niegocki

Kathleen Niegocki, Ph.D., psychologist, and associate and training director of Furman Counseling Center: Disordered eating exists along a continuum. It can include people who have diagnosed eating disorders and also people who don’t meet the criteria for an eating disorder but are still struggling with harmful thoughts and behaviors. Disordered eating is also a disorder of emotions. It’s not just about food, but emotional well-being.

Eating becomes disordered when a person’s relationship with food starts to cause them distress in their life, when it negatively impacts their health — whether that’s physical or emotional — or their social functioning.  


Are there habits that students can recognize to be aware of their relationship with eating and food? 

Rebecca Alcosser

Rebecca Alcosser, RD, dietitian: Think about how behaviors [with food] potentially are impacting their life. Are you having a hard time focusing in class? Is it difficult to concentrate or stay on top of tasks that you need to get done? Is it impacting your social life, like wanting to go out to eat with friends? Or are there urges to stay isolated in your room and engage in maladaptive behaviors? Always bring it back to focusing on how these behaviors are impacting your life.


Do certain groups have a higher incidence of eating disorders?

MJ Murphy

MJ Murphy, MSN, MPH, executive director of Student Health and Wellness: There’s this stereotype of eating disorders, which is thin, white, privileged, female, but the spectrum of eating disorder behavior is great. It’s not just restricting, it’s not just binging, and it really can affect people in all body shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. 

What is characteristic at Barnard is that the students here are very high performing, very perfectionist driven, and very hard on themselves. And all those characteristics really, for lack of a better word, feed into eating disorder behaviors in terms of students being hard on themselves, pushing themselves to be more perfect. And that is for all different body shapes and images. So what’s really important isn’t just having one image, but that we recognize behaviors.


How do the following practices affect disordered eating: calorie counts on menus, portion sizes, COVID, disruptions in the dining hall, diet, culture, expectations of thinness, the concept of the freshman 15, and academic pressures and stress?

Alcosser: It’s really important to know all of the cultural implications of these things that, yes, exist on a college campus, but unfortunately, also exist everywhere else that we move through the world. So the calorie counts are not limited to just the dining hall, but also food corporations and food companies require this by law. So what is important is reducing the exposures to these triggers when possible, but also understanding how to cope with them when we see them and think critically about where they’re coming from and the function of having them in place.

Niegocki: One trigger is not likely to cause an entire eating disorder. There are usually so many factors that all come together to impact the development of an eating disorder. But these triggers can certainly be part of that kind of road and can impact people who are trying to recover.

Murphy: [In treatment], we need to meet the patient where they’re at to understand what is pushing them to practice these behaviors. Is it cultural, and they’ve always been told that they were heavy and that’s the impetus that’s making them do certain behaviors? Or is it that numbers trigger something and they can’t eat above 1,200 a day? Or they can’t control their academics but they can control what they put into their mouth? We try to peel away the layers as to what’s the impetus behind these behaviors. 

Courtesy of Barnard Dining
Courtesy of Barnard Dining

How do calorie counts act as a trigger? 

Alcosser: In a number of different ways. If a calorie count is listed for the recommended portion size, I have students say things like, “Sometimes it feels like if I were to get more because I’m hungry for more, then it’s a problem.” 

However, for some people who struggle with eating disorders, numbers can be a big part of the rigidity. And so counting calories can be a behavior in an eating disorder, which is why it is problematic if the calories are on display, as they can fuel the rigidity and structure.

What resources are available on campus for students?

Murphy: We have this eating disorder team, which is really comprehensive — it’s medical, physiological, psychological, and nutrition. And this team meets every week. So if a student is brought to our attention, either through the Primary Care Health Services, Furman, or Wellness, we meet and talk about their situation and an approach.

The College has students from every range. There are those who come to Barnard who have suffered from eating disorders for a long time and had treatment. And then we have students who have been practicing eating disorders and no one’s noticed, or they never knew that they were that bad. But for all of the students, this is the first time they are taking full responsibility for their health — no one is taking them to the providers. And so we try to make [our resources] as accessible as possible in terms of one-on-one counseling groups and one-on-one meetings with nutritionists, which are all free. But it’s short term, meaning if someone has significant eating disordered behaviors, we really recommend that they have an outside treatment team, and we help them to find one.

For more information on resources at the College for disordered eating behavior, visit here. In addition, check out the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being, Barnard’s new centralized hub for all wellness-related initiatives across campus. The Francine LeFrak Center supports the entire College community with a 360-degree perspective of personal well-being: physical, mental, and financial.

Lefrak center for well-being logo