Trigger warning: The following reading includes a discussion of eating-disordered behavior.

Transitions are hard, especially moving to college. This is why Weinberg third-year Devon Spungin (@stayingmindfull) and Weinberg second-year Tamara Bendeck (@apinchofbalance) created their own food Instagram pages to share their journeys with others. Although cooking on our own can be a time-consuming and tiring process, Spungin and Bendeck use this as an opportunity to use their creativity and experiment. Cooking, through their lenses, might not be as scary or difficult as it sounds. And surprise - it might even lead to a better relationship with food.

“On one hand, it's amazing to live with friends. Like so much fun. But on the other hand, there is that really heightened level of comparison that's different from any other experience,” Spungin said. “Everyone's like, ‘Oh, how's your college transition?’ but no one ever talks about this transition, you know? That sort of deep rooted mental health transition of this lifestyle switch.”

Photo courtesy of Devon Spungin. / North by Northwestern

During her freshman year, Spungin says she started falling into the “comparison trap” and began analyzing what her friends were eating.

“We were all eating together in the dining halls, the sorority house, and it was very easy to just look at someone else’s plate and compare,” Spungin said. “It’s an overload of stimulation as far as things to compare yourself to.”

These comparisons of life habits give rise to jealousy complexes and insecurities “I realized that I ate pretty differently from my friends. So I was like, maybe I don’t need three meals a day, so I cut back on that.”

At first, Spungin thought it was all under control. But then, she started to see a significant impact on her mental health. She was anxious and irritable, unable to focus on her work. During the summer, Spungin found out that she had severe issues with her gut.

“Under-eating is actually one of the worst things that you could do for your body and for your mental health – especially when it comes to anxiety, focus and concentration and stress,” she said. “Your body absolutely needs fuel.”

Photo courtesy of Devon Spungin. / North by Northwestern

People underestimate the power of food and the impact of what you put into your body. “It goes way beyond weight,” Spungin said.

As she shared, people are hyper-focused on what they’re eating and how it is going to change their weight, so body image might be the root of unhealthy eating. Yet, people don’t realize the foods they eat feed their microbiome, or the diversity of bacteria in their gut. Cutting out certain food groups can affect a person’s microbiome, which is essential for health and immunity.

“What I aspire to is to help people with that sort of awareness of how food is medicine and fuel,” Spungin said. “And that’s how it should be looked at, instead of a catalyst for either weight gain or weight loss.”

As Spungin shared, carbs are the main source of fuel for the brain, so the misconception in diet culture that carbs are ‘bad’ and that you should cut back on carbs is very misleading.

“Especially as a student, unless you have a specific medical condition that makes it difficult to eat carbs, carbs should definitely be a part of your diet,” Spungin said.“They are essential, without them, it can be very hard to completely focus on schoolwork.”

Photo courtesy of Devon Spungin. / North by Northwestern

Unless you have a direct adverse reaction, Spungin says that it's not worth it to drain all of one’s mental energy trying to diet or trying to restrict, since it can seriously decrease one’s quality of life. Letting go of the restrictive mindset and learning to be more intuitive about what she placed into her body allowed Spungin to mend her connection with food.

“It's crazy, how fast you heal from that, just by listening to your body,” Spungin said.

Talking about restrictive dieting, Weinberg sophomore Tamara Bendeck, who also started a food blog during the pandemic, felt the same way.

“Before quarantine, I never had a lot of experience with cooking. I looked at food with guilt,” Bendeck said. “But the more I cooked, the more I started appreciating what I was eating and learning how to not feel guilt for food.”

Photo courtesy of Tamara Bendeck. / North by Northwestern

Like Spungin, Bendeck wanted to share her journey and what she had learned in hopes of helping others. “Honor those cravings,” Bendeck said. “If you want something and restrict yourself, you’ll see it as forbidden and it will be even worse.”

“Think of your body in a way in which you consider what your body does for you: it allows you to walk, it allows you to breathe. That is so much more important than restricting what goes into it,” Bendeck said.

Cooking has now become her passion and has helped her have a healthier relationship with food. By sharing her journey, Bendeck hopes to inspire others to start cooking so that they can experience the same benefits.

Photo courtesy of Tamara Bendeck. / North by Northwestern

By sharing their personal stories, both Spungin and Bendeck have created a safe space for people to share their stories too.

“So many of us are struggling with food and anything body-image related. So the best thing we can all do is self-reflect and listen to ourselves because our brains and our own bodies are our best teachers in knowing what’s best for ourselves,” Spungin said.

For more insight into their journeys and recipes, make sure to check out their blogs!

@apinchofbalance & @stayingmindfull

Photo courtesy of Tamara Bendeck. / North by Northwestern