OPINION: The unintended consequences of Meatless Mondays

A drawing of a person at a buffet line. There are sections for vegetables, grains, protein, fruit, and dairy. All the sections are full except the fruit section, which is empty except for a single cube of tofu.
(Ella Lehavi • The Student Life)

CW: Eating Disorders

“MEATLESS MONDAY. DO NOT GO TO FRARY!” flashes on the women’s water polo team group text. After a four-hour double-practice plus a lift, the low-protein, hot, vegetarian options just won’t cut it. Let’s face it: no one wants a bowl of salad bar tofu.

This story might sound extreme, but I’m not being dramatic. I tell this story to demonstrate that these forced, dining hall choices don’t work for everyone.

Sure, reducing some meat consumption due to environmental concerns is a laudable goal. But completely eliminating meat for a meal encourages — and even enforces — restrictive eating habits. There has to be better ways to reduce meat consumption, while encouraging healthy relationships with food.

Yes, it’s certainly possible to find nutritional sustenance and joy while eating within the confines of vegetarian or vegan diets. Many students voluntarily choose vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, whether for environmental concerns or moral reasons completely unrelated to dietary restriction, and can pursue that choice in a healthy way.

But we can’t ignore that vegan or vegetarian diets can and have been used to disguise, incentivize and perpetuate restrictive eating.

Any form of restriction can lend itself to disordered eating. No matter how you spin it, Frary’s elimination of the largest source of protein, one of the 5 major food groups, is forced restriction. 

These dining hall endorsed food restrictions are especially concerning for college students, a group that is highly susceptible to developing eating disorders. College is a pivotal developmental period in many students’ lives during which dieting can transition to more serious disordered eating.

The Collegiate Survey Project reported that serious eating disorders typically develop between 18 and 21 years of age. Even more devastating 10 to 20 percent of women and four to 10 percent of men suffer from an eating disorder while in college. For many students, they are learning to navigate eating independently for the first time in their adult lives. Dining halls should provide choice rather than incentivizing restriction.

But if you still aren’t convinced by the self-reporting surveys, medical research from the National Library of Medicine found that eating disorders and vegetarianism can have a correlational relationship. While there is still room for more research into that causal chain, the study noted that healthcare professionals should view vegetarian diets as serious “red flags” for patients with preexisting or suspected eating disorders.

Why? Because people may justify restrictive eating habits under the guise of vegetarianism, using it as a socially acceptable way to frame their disordered eating. The 5C administration needs to consider how encouraging vegetarianism through diet elimination can have these negative consequences, unintended or not. Facilitating choice and reducing overall meat consumption are not mutually exclusive goals, and should never be framed as such.

Instead of meatless days, the dining halls should take a more holistic and flexible approach to reducing overall meat consumption and more effectively tending to the environment. Schools can think critically about reducing red meat consumption or sourcing ingredients more sustainably. They can provide more vegetarian protein alternatives and decrease some quantity of meat in menu options while still giving students a choice at every meal. 

If the goal is to reduce overall environmental impact, more choice, rather than none, will yield better outcomes. Fundamentally, colleges should trust students to make the choices that are best for them.

Just as they choose what classes to take and which extracurriculars to join, students should choose to eat how they want. Similarly, if the 5Cs have little control over our courses and after school activities, how is eliminating food and pushing certain diets over others not an institutional overstep?

Colleges should not be assigning moral value to foods and need to recognize potential consequences when they do. 

Madison Lewis PO ’24 is from Palo Alto, California. She is a junior on the Pomona-Pitzer Women’s Water Polo team.

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