When I was a little girl in China, my mother forbade me from consuming any candies and sweet drinks. Because I was never introduced to them, I never craved for them, and thought that my sweets-free life was the norm among little girls. It was only after I became a teenager that I realized most kids grow up eating candies, and many of them develop bad teeth as a result. “See how far-sighted I was?” my mother would say, “You should thank me for having healthy teeth today.”

Those were the days when I ate because I was given food or because I was hungry. My daily three meals were not the highlights of my days or events that I looked forward to with saliva-inducing anticipation. I ate whatever my parents cooked, which was rice with a vegetable dish and a meat dish on most days. I ate until I felt full, and left food that I could not finish in my bowl.

Now that I have spent 2.5 years at Harvard, I came to realize how much my relationship with food has changed since I arrived here in 2013—not just my eating habits, but also my fundamental conception of what eating means to me. Here, I am preoccupied with food day and night. When I’m daydreaming in a class or lying in bed at night, I would plan out the timing and location of every meal of the next day in my head, and decide how much to eat for each meal and whether the arrangements would give me the opportunity (or excuse) to snack on those green tea cookies I got from H-Mart in between. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of restaurants in Harvard Square, and eat out way more often than I should. I am 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 the resume someday under the “Interests” section.

This innocent-looking  macaron is an expression of my newly found obsession with desserts at Harvard. Ever since Zinneken’s in the Square started selling macarons on weekends (with different flavors featured each week), I have been trekking there every weekend just to see what new flavor they have, and will inevitably buy myself two. Well-done, Zinneken’s marketing team.

Sometimes I wonder if my growing appetite is pathological—maybe I have compulsive eating disorder. But many of my friends at Harvard—especially girls—have reported similar experiences, which led me to conclude that it is something about the environment that is changing how people eat here.

Eating at Harvard, in my opinion, is more about mental and emotional sustenance than it is about nutritional intake. I eat because I feel like I deserve it. After finishing a difficult article or completing a midterm exam, I feel like I have expended so much mental energy that I need to refill my body with fuel in the form of a brownie or a cup of hot chocolate. I am certainly not alone in feeling this way. At Harvard, the only surefire way to make people show up to study breaks or events is to entice them with loads of junk food. I once went to a study break that boasted Shake Shack ice cream, Insomnia cookies, pizza, and fudges candies; it was so popular that people started lining up outside the entrance 10 minutes before the starting time. (We are talking about a school where most people show up to class and meetings 10 minutes late.)  In order to be effective, pub emails for events have to include “FREE FOOD” in their subject lines. The unparalleled passion that Harvard students for free food is something that I found unbelievable at first, but I quickly became one of those hungry students standing in line for study breaks, straining my neck to see if there was any double chocolate chips cookies left.

The idea that “you deserve something after you have worked” is infectious, and Harvard students are especially vulnerable to subscribing to this philosophy because we all tend to overwork ourselves. We write long papers, take on tough projects, stay up late nights. There is a reason that the only 24-hour library at Harvard—Lamont—has a cafe that opens until 2am and is more crowded at night. There is a sense that we need a snack or a drink “just to get through the day (or night).” Eating is no longer motivated by physical hunger, but by a desire to compensate for the energy that we expended through our mental exertions. Of course, we all know that consuming calories doesn’t exactly help with recuperating our overworked brain. What it really does is recuperating the heart—how we feel about ourselves. In effect, we are setting up positive reinforcement mechanisms for effortful activities by rewarding ourselves upon their completion.

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 resist temptations without indulging once in a while. The researchers who came up with this theory found that when people draw on their willpower to resist eating cookies, they are less likely to persist when solving a difficult puzzle afterwards.

When I first learned about the willpower depletion theory in a class, I experienced an epiphany. The theory explains my sudden urges to go down to brain break at 10pm even though I’m not hungry at all, my constant desire to eat out even though the food in the dining hall is perfectly fine, and the little demon in my head that keeps telling me “a little snack in between meals never hurts.” Maybe life at Harvard is just so stressful in so many ways 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 a precious opportunity to socialize with friends by staying in to finish this History paper on a Saturday night?), food is the only thing that guarantees satisfaction. A freshly baked chocolate chip cookie never disappoints.

But upon further reflection, I realized that the willpower depletion cannot explain the full story; it has to do with culture as well. When I was in China and Singapore, I was also a workaholic who constantly found myself in stressful situations. Getting into a good high school and a good college were some of the most difficult tasks that I have had to take on. But in Asia, my desire to release stress did not express itself in an urge to put something delicious into my mouth. In fact, I had a much higher tolerance for stress, period. 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. However, in America, I feel like whenever I experience stress, I deserve something. I should get myself a “treat”, some “comfort food.” It is telling that the very 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 to hell with the people who are there to criticize my lifestyle. I like to think of this as a “culture of entitlement” (here, I use the word “entitlement” in a loose sense to mean that people feel like they are entitled to certain things in life, not in a pejorative sense). Because it creates good feelings about oneself, it is easy for new immigrants to be sucked into the culture of entitlement quickly and completely. Many of my friends who are Chinese students studying in the US have complained of a change in eating habits and weight gain since they arrived in America.

Theorizing aside, I do think that it is productive to turn eating into a hobby, and that becoming a connoisseur in food and drinks can vastly enrich one’s life. After all, there are few things that we do so frequently and so regularly. And we always get a second chance: if I accidentally order a disappointing lunch, there is always dinner to make it up. There is no doubt that eating has brought me more happiness in America than it ever did in China or Singapore. Even so, sometimes I still wish that when I feel stressed, instead of heading to the nearest froyo or chocolate shop, I will automatically head straight to the gym and run all my worries away.

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3 thoughts on “How Harvard (and America) has changed how I eat

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