Dining Alone: The Stigma Behind Counting Calories in College

When I came to college, I was facing a tough adjustment, but not for traditional reasons. Instead, my trouble came from the place where most college students find solace: all-you-can-eat buffets of hot food and a full dessert bar. There are a lot of things you could be judged for in college: drinking too much; not drinking enough; being too forward or too shy; sucking up to professors or sleeping through every class. But it had never occurred to me that trying to eat healthy would be one of them.

There are never a shortage of new diets I hear about going around, including the Paleo diet, gluten-free diets and intermittent fasting. Most people would agree that health and body image are important, especially when forming habits as a young adult. What some wouldn't agree with, as I've found, is how I chose to do this. I started counting calories.

Well, I took a modified approach. Relying on calories alone allows you to still eat junk food, just less of it. Two Chips Ahoy! cookies have about 107 calories, compared to a banana at 105. But the hard truth, for those who like to indulge in sugar-filled and processed foods, is that not all calories are created equal.

Now I count my approximate macronutrient intake every day, which in some ways is equivalent. But in many other ways, it is distinctly and unquestionably healthier. Macronutrients provide your body with the calories and energy that it needs to fuel your growth, metabolism and other important functions. Specifically, macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins and fats, which are the most essential nutrients for your body to function properly. This is why low-carb and low-fat diets don't work, at least in the long term.

When I whipped out my iPhone in the dining hall that first day and opened my calorie-counting app (like MyFitnessPal or MyNetDiary) the weird looks began. Right away, people asked what I was doing, why I was staring intently at the nutrition cards set up in front of the industrial trays of dining hall food, why I was searching lists of contributed nutrient labels, hunched over my phone while everyone else was digging in without a second thought. It's a hard thing to explain to others, and I received a variety of reactions whenever I actually got up the courage to try -- I got the eye rolls, the "She probably has an eating disorder" comments. I also got a lot of genuine curiosity and interest. But for some reason, many of my peers automatically associate counting calories with an eating disorder or obsession with losing weight. And for awhile, I really struggled. I felt left out, weird, uncool, antisocial. What they don't realize, and at first neither did I, is how much giving your body the right amount of fuel it needs really makes a difference in how you look and feel.

I started to avoid dining halls. Not because of any temptations, but because I was tired of feeling judged for what I was eating -- and for what I wasn't. I began buying most of my own food. This is a luxury that I am lucky enough to be able to afford, and it definitely wasn't the only healthy route I could have taken. But it was the one I chose to avoid the awkward questions and condescending looks. My dieting choices also had a tendency to unintentionally spark my friends' own body doubts, as if I were looking down on their choices. Other people's perception of why I ate the way I did took over the real reasons I started -- because I cared about my health. On numerous occasions, I felt pressure to modify my own decisions to appease the tension.

In a culture caught between eating disorders, stick-thin models and battle calls to love your body, a healthy balance is hard to find. While it's necessary to raise awareness in a society in which eating disorders have become so prevalent, the solution shouldn't be a complete 180. Teaching teenagers that they can eat whatever they want whenever they want with no consequences is not the answer. Teenagers and young adults should be conscious of eating their favorite foods in moderation, practice portion control and should be educated about what they are putting into their mouths. They should not be judged for taking the initiative to read a nutrition label and make a smarter, healthier decision.

For me, counting calories became a habit, but surprisingly, not a restricting one. When I started counting, I realized I wasn't eating enough healthy fats, like nut butter or chocolate, which I now eat multiple times every day. I also wasn't eating enough protein, being a vegetarian. That's not to say that I don't slip up or that I even care every time I do. There's no harm in an occasional pig-out session with your friends or a trip to a weird, exciting restaurant where you have no way of knowing how many calories are going into your body. But for the everyday, mundane eating that most of us count on the majority of the time, macronutrients are a great place to start.

I don't expect everyone to start chronicling their calorie intake. I don't even think that everyone should. But what I do expect is for others to accept what I'm doing. A healthy lifestyle is something I have the right to, and for me, that includes calorie counting.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.