A Canadian pizza with mushrooms, pepperoni and bacon.

Anthropology: Culture Shock in Relation to Food in College

As a residential college student, there is one location that I look forward to visiting every day on campus: the dining hall. Students look forward to a meal after long, taxing periods of classes, studying, or extra-curricular activities. Sometimes, however, students may have a look of dismay upon arrival. They often criticize the food served or not served to them. It is not uncommon that students ignore their options and proclaim: there is nothing to eat! From the scope of an anthropological perspective, this phrase translates to: there is nothing for me to eat! It seems that everyone, including myself, has complained that they would have preferred something else to eat at one point. Students were likely to experience culture shock.

As an anthropology student, I began to see that dissatisfaction concerning the food was not solely due to insatiability. A myriad of cultural factors furthers the displeasure with the food choices available. As humans, we need to eat. Eating provides our systems with the necessary fuels to complete metabolic activities. Preferences associated with culture introduce hesitancy to their choice. I have experienced, observed, and learned about the cultural factors that account for dissatisfaction with food options.

Culture Shock

Merriam-Webster defines culture shock as a sense of confusion and uncertainty or anxiety that an individual may experience when exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation. For first-year students especially, the introduction to a college environment is rather sudden and new. The high school environment differs from the college environment. When returning to college after a break, students can still experience culture shock.


Information published by the University of the Pacific identifies some common symptoms associated with culture shock. One of these symptoms is homesickness. Though colleges attempt to make the school home for new students, it will never fully match their home environment. Some schools try to serve home-cooked meals. This option is very thoughtful for giving homesickness some consideration. However, the thoughtfulness of these meals elicits other symptoms of culture shock.


Another symptom of culture shock, according to the University of the Pacific, is hyper-irritability. Hyper-irritability can take the form of criticism towards dining hall food. The University of the Pacific describes a honeymoon phase that exists upon the arrival in the new environment before culture shock fully settles in. During the honeymoon phase, the similarities stand out between the familiar culture and the unfamiliar culture. Concerning the college setting, it is possible that students can draw comparisons between the food in the dining hall and the meals they enjoyed at home.

Culture shock symptoms appear after a duration of three months in the new setting. The individual initially saw the similarities between meals at college and meals from their home setting. But, after some time, the flaws in the new food will be more prominent. A student familiar with their ethnic cuisine will find that this same cuisine on campus lacks something. It could lack spice, or an ingredient, prompting criticism from the students that there is nothing to eat.

A curve showing the relationship between degree of adjustment as a function of time for someone experiencing culture shock.
The curve above represents the degree of adjustment to a new culture as a function of time for an individual experiencing culture shock. This curve has labels that indicate different stages of the process of adjustment. “Arrival abroad” corresponds to arrival on the college campus in the context of this post. Image Source: The University of the Pacific

Eating Disturbances

Another symptom of culture shock identified by the University of the Pacific is eating disturbances. Eating disturbances include any changes in regular eating habits, including eating too little or too much. Eating scantily or excessively circles back to the idea: there is nothing for me to eat. Humans have to eat, but the quantity of food consumed is up to the individual.

A critical attitude towards food and limited options can drive an individual to scant eating. A student can consume what they need to avoid being hungry, without eating to feel full, in a sense. Excessive eating can result from a feeling of exhaustion. Both scenarios are also a result of psychological stress.


Stress is one of the triggers of culture shock and all of its symptoms. The University of the Pacific addresses four stressors in a new environment. The first stressor deals with how to succeed in a new environment. An individual does not have a sense of how to avoid failure. They may find that their previous notions of how to accomplish their goals are not applicable. Unrealistic expectations of the new environment are also responsible for stress. In addition, failure to achieve expected progress in the new environment is responsible for stress. The fourth source of stress is a result of formed relationships not living up to desired relationships. For a student, immersion into a new place, with new people, poses difficulties.

Other Cultural Factors that Lead to Culture Shock

Aside from symptoms of culture shock, other cultural factors drive students to deplore dining hall cuisine. In most cases, however, if dining services are made aware of any issues, they will attempt to accommodate the student. The following sections will discuss some additional reasons for disapproval of dining hall food.

Inattention to Specific Diets

Everyone has a different diet. Diets consist of what an individual eats, as well as any foods that they do not eat. Commonly, diet is dependent upon their health. Celiac Disease initiates an immune response against the small intestine when an individual consumes gluten. Around 3.1 million Americans follow a gluten-free diet, according to forbes.com. Intolerance to soy and lactose, for example, can deter an individual from consuming meals with either soy or lactose. Allergies, depending on severity, can lead a student to avoid numerous foods to lessen the risk of even having an allergic reaction. Voluntary diets, including veganism, limit the number of options that one has at the dining hall. An increasing number of Americans are electing to adopt a vegan diet, with the percentage of vegans rising to 3% of the U.S. population (www.plantproteins.co).

Dining halls ensure to accommodate students. However, options are not as bountiful for someone who observes a specific diet. Food consumption can vary for people of different socioeconomic classes if they have a health-related diet. For example, vegans of lower socioeconomic status may have the funds to purchase vegetables and tofu to create a meal. Vegans of higher socioeconomic status may be able to obtain vegetables and tofu, in addition to meat and dairy alternatives, which tend to be more expensive.

Listed on amazon.com, a 32-ounce bag of Amazon brand shredded cheddar cheese is $9.51. The price equates to $0.30 per ounce of cheese. On the other hand, a 7.1-ounce bag of Daiya dairy-free shredded cheddar cheese alternative is $4.99. The price equates to $0.70 per ounce of cheese (amazon.com).

Nonobservance of Religious Dietary Restrictions

Many religions and cultures have taboos that forbid members from consuming food. Students who follow religious dietary guidelines will face some difficulties when choosing a meal in the dining hall.


Jewish Kashrut (dietary laws) lists forbidden foods. Those following a kosher diet must not eat pork, shellfish, and meat and dairy together. Also, butchers must slaughter meat, so there is no trace of blood. Those who follow strict kosher rules are unable to use the same utensils to eat meat and dairy (Medical News Today).

six kosher agency symbols
The six symbols are kosher agency symbols. These symbols indicate to a consumer that the food is certified kosher. Image Source: https://www.godairyfree.org/food-and-grocery/food-label-info/understanding-kosher


Many Muslims also have strict dietary rules. Islam permits Muslims to eat only halal meats, but not haram (forbidden) foods. Prayer is involved in the slaughtering of an animal for it to be considered halal. Pork is haram for a Muslim, according to the Quran. Religious practice permits Muslims to eat after sunset (iftar) during periods of fasting, such as Ramadan.

platters of different Arab foods and sauces for a feast
Families will often have a feat after sunset for Ramadan. Most of the people residing in the Arab geographic area identify as Muslim. The dishes shown above are different Arab foods that are often eaten during Ramadan. This includes seasoned rice dishes, meats, bread, salads, sauces, and desserts. Image Source: Mango (https://blog.mangolanguages.com/popular-ramadan-foods-across-the-arab-world)


For those who observe Hinduism, animal fats, such as gelatin, are forbidden. In addition, consuming beef is strictly unallowed because the cow is a sacred animal in the religion. Dietary laws are laxer, as individuals can consume meats, though many Hindus observe vegetarianism. During times of fasting, Hindus must adhere to a vegetarian diet, and in some cases, are not even allowed to consume salt while fasting.


Buddhists observe a similar diet to Hindus. Usually, Buddhists are vegetarian. But, Buddhism allows believers to consume meat on occasion. However, meat must not come from a slaughtered animal. For example, the animal would have had to die of natural causes for a Buddhist to consume its meat (healthline.com).


For individuals observing Catholicism, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Fridays during Lent, they must refrain from consuming meat. During Lent, an individual may choose to abstain from eating a specific food as a sacrifice. This sacrifice aims to mimic the sacrifices made by Jesus before his death (The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Observers of all of these religions have dietary restrictions. Even so, dining services do not always accommodate these restrictions. Dining services can try to accommodate Muslims by extending hours of operation. Extended hours can raise awareness of different religious traditions in the community. However, the food served is usually not traditional or ethnic food for students who observe Ramadan. Though not intentionally, students experience part of their Ramadan traditions being stripped away. A college cannot just avoid serving meat on Fridays during Lent. If most of the student body does not identify as Catholic, it is unfair to impose Lent restrictions on the student body. Students of other religions face similar situations with their religious beliefs, especially in secular schools.

Please note that the religions listed are not the only religions with dietary restrictions.

Unfamiliarity with Food Prepared

Another reason students may consume their dining hall meals with dismay is due to unfamiliarity with the foods prepared. For international students, especially at an American college, many options are foreign. Even for American students at an American college, some options are new to them. Unfamiliarity with the food can deter a student from giving a meal a try, especially if their meal plans are limited. Many students prefer to spend their meal plan on something that they hold knowledge of already.

International Students

International students will try many foods for the first time, foods that are widely common in America. For example, to a Macedonian student, a quesadilla is new. To a Romanian student, tater tots are new. Some students are willing to try foods they are unfamiliar with, causing them to expand their intercultural interactions. However, hesitancy is not uncommon.

Reasons for Unappealing Food Options

Whether a student is experiencing unfamiliar foods, dietary restrictions, or culture shock, no single reason is responsible for unappetizing meals. Dining services purchase ingredients in bulk, and bulk purchases do not guarantee that ingredients are of the highest quality. Therefore, without a hike in tuition, students would be unable to achieve more expensive options. For example, spices are expensive. Foods served have basic seasonings of salt and pepper. The use of additional seasoning is frugal. Additionally, alternatives, such as non-dairy cheeses and “Beyond Meat,” are also expensive.

meatballs, vegetables and rice served in a takeout tray, with soda in a cup.
The picture above shows how most dining halls served food during the pandemic. Oftentimes, foods from different cultures are served together; meatballs are served alongside vegetables, rice, and curry. To some, food can seem unappetizing. Image Source: The Counter (https://thecounter.org/covid-19-essay-eating-in-college-students-coronavirus/)

Culture shock is almost inevitable in a new environment. The student is not to blame for experiencing symptoms of culture. The institution attempts to make the transition into the college atmosphere seamless. This transition is universal for all students at an institution, and each student responds differently during their acclimation. Differences in how a student adapts to college lead to different symptoms of culture shock.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Students, including myself, do not want to experience culture shock. Common reactions range in severity but still interfere with life. Social lives are affected by symptoms and pose difficulties in forging meaningful relationships in college. Academic performance is also interrupted since behavioral changes hold the possibility of leading to changes in study patterns. Brief behavioral changes are inevitable in the course of experiencing culture shock. Nevertheless, culture shock produces some benefits in the adjustment path.

Duration of Culture Shock

According to the University of the Pacific, recovery from culture shock occurs between 5 and 25 months. During this time, some students choose to stay on campus. Other students go home for their breaks. They may take a winter or summer class. Regardless, students experience recovery during these brief periods between the Fall and Spring semesters.  Students must adjust to periods away from school after they have just started to adapt to the periods in school. Outside of school, students endure the same symptoms of culture shock discussed. Dietary changes and eating disturbances occur. On the contrary, foods in the home setting are more tailored to their cultures. After some time, students return to campus and have to continue their symptoms of culture shock until they are fully adjusted. 

Achieving Adaptation

After recovery, individuals enduring culture shock will achieve adaptation. Adaptation leads them to be interculturally fluent. Once a student is interculturally fluent in college, the process of leaving and coming back to college becomes affable. In addition, students can enjoy college further and find it easier to experience the culture (University of the Pacific). 

Being interculturally fluent allows students to draw similarities and differences between cultures. Comparisons allow them to learn about different cultures and to withstand the differences without experiencing culture shock every time they arrive on campus. The process of becoming adjusted to college varies in duration, depending on how much exposure to a college a student may have. 

Group of ethnic multicultural students in sitting at table library. Students are talking and reading.
To someone new to the college environment, a serious study group might seem intimidating. Students can feel that they do not belong, or are not smart enough. However, after some adjustment to the college atmosphere, a student will find study groups normal. The student will grow to understand that everyone contributes something to the group. Image Source: https://study.com/blog/how-to-find-the-right-people-for-your-study-group.html

My Concluding Thoughts

Spending time in the dining hall at my college has never had so much depth until I took introductory courses in anthropology. At first, I had attributed my feelings towards the food and my peers’ reactions to dinner every evening to stress. This stress extended beyond being stressed for reasons I had suspected (pandemic and academics). Most residential students have experienced this period of adjustment to college, and, surprisingly, many have displayed symptoms of culture shock towards the food. Student attitudes reveal the importance of food and the role it plays in culture. 

Leave a Reply