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How Harvard Has Changed How I Eat

5.19.16


When I was a little girl in China, my mother forbade me candies and sweet drinks. Because I was never introduced to them, I never craved them. Those were the days when I ate because I was given food or because I was hungry. I ate until I felt full, and left food that I could not finish in my bowl. 

Since I came to the United States to attend Harvard three years ago, my relationship with food has changed fundamentally. Here, I am preoccupied with food day and night. When I’m daydreaming in class or lying in bed at night, I plan out the timing and location of every meal of the next day with mouthwatering precision. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of restaurants in Harvard Square, and eat out way more often than I should. I’m a member of the Wine Society. I’m on Yelp more than I’m on Snapchat. Without realizing it, I have become an epicurean, a glutton, a foodie. Eating, for me, has turned from necessity into a hobby, something I can write about and maybe even put on my résumé. 

Sometimes I wonder if my growing appetite is pathological: maybe I have binge-eating disorder. But many of my friends at Harvard—especially women—have reported similar experiences, leading me to conclude that something about the environment is changing how people eat here. 

Eating at Harvard seems more about mental and emotional sustenance than nutrition. I eat because I feel I deserve it. After finishing a difficult essay or completing an exam, I feel I have expended so much mental energy that I need to refuel my body by consuming a brownie. I am certainly not alone in this. At Harvard, the only sure-fire way to get people to show up to an event is to entice them with loads of junk food. Event e-mails must scream “FREE FOOD” in their subject lines. I once attended a study break that boasted ice cream, cookies, pizza, and fudge; it was so popular that people started lining up outside the entrance 10 minutes before the starting time—at a school where most people show up to class 10 minutes late. Harvard students’ unparalleled passion for free food is something that I found unbelievable at first, but I quickly became one of those hungry students standing in line, straining my neck to see if there were any double-chocolate-chip cookies left.

The idea that you deserve something for hard work is infectious, and Harvard students are especially vulnerable to it because we all tend to overwork ourselves. We write long papers, take on tough projects, stay up late nights. Lamont, Harvard’s 24-hour library, has a café that seems to get most of its business after midnight. Eating isn’t motivated by hunger, but by a desire to compensate for stress and expended energy.

The “willpower depletion” theory in psychology argues that willpower is akin to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse, and that people are unable to keep resisting temptations without indulging once in a while. Researchers have found that when people draw on their willpower to resist eating cookies, they are less likely to persist when solving a difficult puzzle afterward.

When I first studied the theory in class, I had an epiphany. Maybe life at Harvard is just so stressful that I have to release stress through eating. In a world with so many crushing uncertainties (Can I get an A in this class? How do I get a good internship? Am I missing out on social opportunities by staying in to finish this history paper on a Saturday night?), food is the only thing that guarantees satisfaction.

But willpower depletion cannot explain the full story. It’s a matter of culture as well. In China and Singapore, where I grew up, I also constantly found myself in stressful situations. Getting into a good high school and college were among the most difficult tasks I have ever taken on. But in Asia, my desire to release stress didn’t express itself as an urge to eat. My environment and socialization made me feel like it was the way things were supposed to be: if you want to get good results, you have to work very hard, so deal with it. In the United States, whenever I experience stress, I feel like I deserve a treat. The notion of “comfort food” does not exist in China, and there is no translation for it in Chinese. America is always telling me that I shouldn’t feel bad about my choices, that I should be proud of myself, and that no one has the right to criticize my lifestyle. I like to think of this as a “culture of entitlement” (I use the word “entitlement” in a descriptive, not pejorative, sense). It is easy for new immigrants to be sucked into this feel-good culture of entitlement quickly and completely. Many of my Chinese friends, at Harvard and elsewhere, have complained of a change in eating habits and weight gain since they arrived in the United States.

But it would be wrong to assume that all Chinese people in China eat in moderation. Members of China’s growing middle class are beginning to eat more lavishly because they can afford to. Ordering expensive and excessive dishes at restaurants has become a status symbol, and the healthy eating movement is far less mature than it is in the United States. How much a society eats has to do with economic development as well as culture—a lesson that China is now learning.

Theorizing aside, I do think that it can be rewarding to turn eating into a hobby, and that becoming a food connoisseur can vastly enrich one’s life. Eating has brought me more happiness in the States than it ever did in China or Singapore. Even so, sometimes I still wish that instead of heading to the nearest fro-yo shop or chocolatier when I feel stressed, I’d head straight to the gym and run all my worries away.

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