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In The News: The Dark Side of Calorie Labeling?

How is this for an interesting spin on calorie labeling?

“After students and parents raised concerns about displayed calorie counts leading to or worsening eating disorders, Harvard University Dining Services removed the index cards detailing nutritional information from dining halls this year,” CNN.com reports.

Interestingly, Harvard was going above and beyond, listing calorie, serving size, carbohydrate, and fat information for their dining hall menu options.

Although these values can still be found on the dining hall’s website, they are no longer displayed at the actual eating establishment.

This decision makes absolutely no sense to me.

I simply do not see the effectiveness of removing a public health information service that has the potential to benefit a large percentage of the student body because it can be harmful to a smaller contingent of individuals (although eating disorder rates in college campuses are high, we are certainly talking about less than half of the total population.)

Besides, people living with eating disorders are usually hyper aware of caloric content out of their own valition.

If anything, they are more likely to seek out that information online than someone with a passing interest in maybe, perhaps, somehow wanting to manage their weight more efficiently.

Someone struggling with anorexia is already following an extremely regimented and restrictive diet.

It is highly probable that they walk into a dining hall with a pre-established harsh caloric limit on their mind (rather than finding out as they stand in line that, oh, the sandwich they were thinking of getting adds up to 900 calories.)

Although “Dining Services will continue to promote healthy eating among students through forums and information sessions,” it is a shame that calorie displays will be eliminated.

If displaying actual numbers is out of the question, why not develop a color-coded range?

For instance, a yellow sticker next to an item signifies “0 – 200″ calories, a blue one signifies “200 – 400,” etc.

And if the administration is looking to convey an overall message of wellness rather than strict calorie counting, how about displaying health-promoting banners and signs throughout the dining hall (i.e.: “Whole wheat pasta is a great source of fiber,” “Olive oil is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats,” etc.)?

What is your opinion?

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12 Comments

  1. Anonymous said on September 29th, 2008

    I agree! It’s better for students to see messages on how food effects their health vs. calorie count. I mean, it is an educational institution – right?

    I think adding a few notes about food alergies would be good as well (contains peanuts, milk, wheat, etc.).

    Monica.

  2. Anonymous said on September 29th, 2008

    You are grossly underestimating the prevalence of eating disorders across universities. Statistical studies estimate that anywhere from twenty to forty percent of female college students suffer from diagnosable eating disorders, which doesn’t even begin to address how many have serious body image issues and assorted food neuroses.

    Research also shows that the “freshman fifteen” is a myth–that college women gained, on average, 5 pounds freshman year, and men gained 6.6.

  3. Andy Bellatti said on September 29th, 2008

    I was figuring the rate would be approximately 25%.

    Even if it is as high as 40%, that still means that a majority of the population (60%) doesn’t run any risks from calorie labeling.

    Besides, calorie labeling is not what has, from a sociological standpoint, heightened eating disorders.

    Taking away calorie information from the dining hall does not take away from unrealistic body images in the media, which are far more likely to be behind body dysmorphias.

    Would you support removing food labels from all products, so as to prevent people from obsessing over calories?

    I have addressed the “freshman 15″ myth in a post last year, as well. Feel free to browse the blog archives to see that posting.

  4. Anna said on September 29th, 2008

    My issues with disorderly eating started during freshman year in college. But, for me, anorexia progressed rather slowly because I underestimated how many calories are in certain foods. Had the information been readily available at the dining hall, it would have been a different story.

    My experience actually illustrates that the issue of calorie labeling in college is not so black-and-white. Most people tend to underestimate how much they eat. For me, it was a good thing. For others, not so much.

    Given how vulnerable women can be during their college years when it comes to weight, it would be wise for universities to have ALL freshman take Nutrition 101 as part of their core requirements.

    As far as calorie labeling, I would say that it should remain in place at the dining hall, but, at the same time, freshmen should be educated about the basics of nutrition and eating disorders at least as part of their orientation.

  5. Anonymous said on September 29th, 2008

    I think you’re wrong on this one, Andy. You are certainly underestimating not only the rate of eating disorders on Harvard’s campus, but also the social pressure that eating in a dining hall entails. I just graduated from Harvard, and have had my own issues with weight and eating. Any steps that dining services can take to decrease the eating anxiety so prevalent in dining halls is a good thing. You might think that calorie labeling would help people, but honestly, I don’t think anyone actually benefits from it. Very few people at Harvard are overweight, and those who are probably have over-eating disorders (as in, they are not just overweight, but obese). Perhaps it’s the whole type-A personality thing, but Harvard students, especially women, were in no way benefiting from calorie cards. Healthy eating is a holistic endeavor. It’s not about counting calories.

  6. Andy Bellatti said on September 29th, 2008

    Thank you to all for participating in this discussion.

    Please keep contributing, as I am absolutely loving this exchange of ideas. It’s truly food for thought.

    Some of my additional two cents:

    I completely agree with Anna — eating disorders awareness needs to have a more prominent place across all universities.

    This “out of sight, out of mind” notion (“taking away calorie information will make the eating disorder problem go away”) does nothing to solve the problem at hand.

    Am I supposed to believe that eating disorders in college are the result of calorie labeling? Sorry, I don’t buy it.

    As far as the social pressure that comes with eating at dining halls — while I can appreciate the struggles some people experience in group dining situations, I also know that many people with eating disorders often choose to eat their meals in the privacy of their own rooms or at secluded locations.

    What I don’t understand is the belief that these students (let’s not assume they are all women, please, even if the majority are) would be unaware of calories if they aren’t posted at a dining hall.

    Many of the people diagnosed with anorexia nervosa who I have come across are obsessed with calories. THEY seek out this information… and now thaat it’s online, it’s mega accessible.

    I also don’t think I am underestimating the prevalence of eating disorders at college campuses by labeling these students a “smaller contingent” (even a 30 or 40% rate statistically falls into a minority group.)

    What’s most interesting is that this is all about juxtapositioned public health issues — obesity and undernutrition.

  7. Andy Bellatti said on September 29th, 2008

    Also, I think the pages of Us Weekly and Star Magazine do more to instigate eating disorders than calories on a menu board.

  8. Anna said on September 30th, 2008

    Anonymous – I cannot comment on Harvard’s culture, as I did not attend that particular university. But, I, along with other girls at my dorm, developed anorexia at a university that did not provide nutritional labels for its food.

    When my eating disorder got out of control during sophomore year, I almost never ate at the dining hall. I would take the food (and by food, I mean fresh veggies, an apple and a tiny piece of cheese) to my room, carefully measure it out on the food scale and eat my 200 calories per day very slowly, while doing something mindless, such as watching TV or browsing the web. On those rare occasions when had to eat at the dining hall, I always chose something “safe”, on which I could not possibly overeat, such as a salad with a tiny bit of cheese sprinkled on.

    I do not believe keeping information about nutrition away from women will solve our body image issues. The media is the biggest culprit, in my opinion. Women are constantly exposed to unrealistic images of the “perfect woman” through airbrushed magazine covers, dangerously thin Hollywood starlets, etc. Sadly, some men buy into this illusion as well, holding their partners up to unrealistic standards.

    I truly think that education is the key. I am baffled that with all the core requirements that universities have for their students, not a single one is about nutrition. At a time when our country is struggling with obesity and disorderly eating more than ever, you’d think that universities would take nutrition education more seriously.

  9. Anonymous said on September 30th, 2008

    I respectfully disagree with your posting. I suffered from anorexia my freshman year of college and I know with 100% certainty that calorie counts at the dining hall contributed significantly to my eating disorder. They enabled me to continue with my disease. If I about got the courage to eat it was quickly smashed by seeing calories. Do I think what Harvard is doing is beneficial? Yes. Is it the ONLY way to fight eating disorders? NO. There are thousands of reasons for eating disorders and what drives them. But this is a step in the right direction. When I started treatment seeing the calorie contents got even harder because now I had to eat those things, think how scary that was – to eat food I was afraid of PLUS having a calorie number looking at me as I shook having to put this food on my plate. It scared the hell out of me.

    Balance and moderation is key and that is what we need to teach. I’d be more up for color coding – “always food” “sometimes food” “go light on” – numbers freak people out and the people that don’t need to be/shouldn’t be paying attention to are the people looking at the calorie contents and they people that probably could benefit from calorie watching are not. People don’t understand calories, plus it is important to look at the food overall.

    I am one of the lucky ones. I have walked away from this disease. But I got sick at college and the dining hall contributed to it. For me, I can testify that these nutrition labels were of my detriment. Someone else may argue differently, but if our society is starting to preach balance and moderation – lets practice it. Counting calories is not the way to go and I am so happy Harvard has done this. I hope more schools follow suit.

  10. Anonymous said on September 30th, 2008

    I’ve always liked the idea of calorie labeling. In my opinion, one of the worst things about unhealthy eating is when people believe they are doing themselves and their body a favour by eating a certain food when in reality it is not as healthy as they thought.

  11. Anonymous said on September 30th, 2008

    Sorry, but I don’t buy that calorie labels contribute to eating disorders. If people aren’t using the calorie labeling to feed their neuroses, they’re using the Atkins diet (big my freshman year at Harvard) or other stupid food fads.

    As for the supposedly high prevalence of eating disorders at Ivy League schools, I graduated from Harvard less than 10 years ago. My sister just graduated from another Ivy league school. I remember the factoids that spread about the rampant, Type A personality driven eating disorders. I even bought them for a while and congratulated my slightly overweight self on avoiding them . However, by my senior year I had realized that Harvard women were no more or less overweight than any other group of college age, upper middle class women. My sister’s experience at Dartmouth was similar. Neither she nor I ever saw hard numbers to back up the eating disorder myths.

    Andy’s right. Harvard of all places should not make decisions based on anecdotes and Lifetime-movie-of-the-week reasoning. Putting calorie counts on the foods would have helped me control my weight better and develop better lifetime eating habits. Given that overweight and obesity is a much more prevalent in the “real” world after college and that there is no actual evidence that nutritional information will increase the prevalence or severity of eating disorders, I think posting the information is preferable to concealing it.

  12. Anonymous said on October 2nd, 2008

    “Sorry, but I don’t buy that calorie labels contribute to eating disorders.”

    Completely agree. No one bats an eye at binge overeating, which most of our society participates in. If you want to mildly restrict calories, we start saying it causes eating disorders.

    Last I checked these are psychiatric diagnoses. How do we know that having ready tools to maintain a normal (even a low-normal) bodyweight does not prevent problems rather than cause them. Maybe we should ban fashion magazines…

    Could be some study data I am missing?

    Love the blog.

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