Friday, September 26, 2008

Harvard bucks the mainstream on "nutrition information"

Last year, if you ate at a Harvard dining hall, you were confronted by a large sign listing the calorie, fat, protein, etc. content of everything you ate.

This year the signs are gone, thanks to a group of parents who protested them.

"The feeling was that for people who have eating disorders or who struggle with issues around the literal value of food, the emphasis on nutrition information does not always lead people to eat in a healthy manner," said Harvard dining hall spokeswoman Crista Martin.

It's naive of anyone to think that an "emphasis on nutrition information" will lead to "healthier" eating decisions. Most of us can't help but be aware of fat grams, calories, etc. in the food we eat (or don't eat), and the effect is hardly salutory.

I practice intuitive eating most of the time. I gave up dieting years ago. I parented a child through anorexia. But when I'm faced with those "nutrition information" signs, I immediately feel that whatever I'm eating, or about to eat, is too much. I immediately slip back into a mindset of any calories are too many.

It's like the story about the old miser and his horse. Each day the miser fed his horse a little less, until finally the horse died of starvation. The miser's comment: "Just when I was training him to need no food at all!"

Those calorie count listings make me feel as though the goal is to eat as little as possible--ideally, nothing. They immediately trigger fear, anxiety, and the restricting mindset.

Luckily I am too ornery to stay in that mindset for long. But is it really a surprise that for students at Harvard, one of the most competitive schools on the planet, signs listing calorie counts of everything served in the dining halls might be a bad idea? That a vulnerable population (driven, intensely competitive Harvard students) might be triggered by these reminders of "healthy eating"?

I don't think so.

I only wish the rest of the world would follow Harvard's lead on this one.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm glad to hear this. I developed my ED while at Harvard and between precisely calibrated gym equipment and these stupid signs, it was easy to keep my caloric intake dangerously low (this was a problem for most of my roommates as well). To make matters worse, the cards were often wrong -- on one memorable day, skinless boneless chicken breast had something like 700 calories per 100 grams and Congo bars had 19 -- making them largely worthless even for non-disordered eaters.

occhiblu said...

Seriously. When I was there, they had to put signs up in the gym showers asking women not to puke in them, but to use the toilets instead. I was one of the only people I knew who thought that eating was a required activity, not something you should obviously skip in order to prove you were sufficiently busy. Eating disorders were just *everywhere*.

Unknown said...

Those stupid signs weren't the only thing messing up my relationship with food (which never, thank heavens or genetics or whatever, became a full-blown ED but make me lose enough weight that it messed up my health and my doctor asked me if I had an eating disorder, to which I promptly lied and said I was just busy--also pretty believable for a Harvard student), but they sure as fuck didn't help and I was seriously relieved to come back to campus after a year off and find them gone. The worst part for me was the serving sizes--I'm terrible at estimating anything by sight or weight, so I would always just "round down" and emotionally freak out if I had more.

So, yeah. Thanks, Harvard. And the students in the Crimson article who want the signs back because "healthy eating should be a priority for everyone" can bite my fleshy ass.

Anonymous said...


I really enjoyed this post, so I linked to it at my eating disorders site.

Thanks for telling us about a food fight with a spectacular ending!


Heidi said...

I've never understood the need for posters in cafeterias or menus in restaurants with caloric content. It isn't helpful at all and all it offers is guilt.
By the way I think it's fantastic that you blog about this stuff. :)

Harriet said...

That's . . . incredible. I can hardly fathom it. You'd think there would be more response than telling students to puke in the toilets, please.

Isabel, you tell 'em!

Angelique and Heidi, thanks for the kind words. (And the link.)

I wonder how many other college dining halls post calorie counts? Is it common practice these days?

Carrie Arnold said...

They do in my workplace cafeteria. And I've also heard of colleges hosting/sponsoring "Biggest Loser" contest.


Anonymous said...

the real problem here is not the posters, but the cognitions of people who read them. It is not ultimately the responsibilty of Harvard, or any institution which posts this information, to protect people from their interpretation of signs. The information is simply fact. How you use it, whether adaptive or maladaptive, is YOUR issue. Maybe the real issues are the poor coping skills of these students in a stressful environment.

Harriet said...

It may not be Harvard's responsibility to protect its students (though I think that's arguable), but neither is it Harvard's responsibility to post the damn things in the first place. And as several people have pointed out, you don't have to be a Harvard student to find such signage stressful and counterproductive to "good health," whatever that is.

MigiziNse-ikwe said...

Most universities and colleges have a clause somewhere in thier paperwork for students that they have to provide a safe educational environment. Safe, on one hand, can be seen as safe from poor eating and therefore posting the signs. Safe can also mean safe from ED triggers, hence taking down the signs. I can see both sides, but I'm glad the signs are down. I ignore them wherever I see them.

occhiblu said...

That's . . . incredible. I can hardly fathom it. You'd think there would be more response than telling students to puke in the toilets, please.

To be fair, the eating disorder support group did have flyers posted on the inside of the bathroom stalls offering help.

In fact, I got so used to seeing them inside bathroom stalls that I was surprised for a while after graduating not to see them in all women's restrooms. It started to feel like a standard-issue bathroom fixture.

Fiona Marcella said...

Here in the UK things haven't gotten to such a fever pitch with the nutritional information police. Therefore when I was in the US recently, I got o so confused with the calorie counts on the Starbucks menu as they seemed to me to be where the price should be and I had no idea how many dollars and cents to hand over. Talk about getting values mixed up

Anonymous said...

Safety from triggers? No one possibly could argue for the practical enforceability of such protections. I consider the signs themselves to be neutral. The moral overlay isn't inevitably implied by raw numbers. Its existence might burden the eating disordered, but they need to adapt. I am not sympathetic to their expectations that something be changed, added, or removed because it might trigger them.

Harriet said...

Hmmm. Methinks the lady (or man) doth protest too much.

What, pray tell, makes you so unsympathetic? Not just unsympathetic--really your attitude is downright punitive.

Rosalie Y said...

At my school (Duke University), people have requested many many times for nutrition information to be posted. One of the main reasons nutrition information remains NOT POSTED is the high prevalence of eating disorders on campus. I think it's a great decision -- it sends the message that you can eat healthfully without eating by numbers.


Anonymous said...

I also don't think the signs are a bad thing (and, yes, I am a recovered ED.) I wonder if there are more obese people or more eating disordered people (of which many obese might also be considered.)

Harriet said...

You're conflating obesity with overeating--a common mistake.

I have yet to meet anyone who is truly and fully recovered from an ED who thinks it's a good idea to have such signs posted.

Unknown said...

I was really glad to read this. It is a fortunate move. Actual healthy eating and lifestyles NEED to be promoted on college campuses (I gained atleast 100lbs in college) but it needs to be actual health - eat HEALTHY fuel/food and cut back on stuff that won't help out. Much less emphasis needs to be put on calories. This nation and the western part of this world is obsessed with bodily perfection. It's not a surprise that eating disorders are rising. And no, this won't help the students at Harvard already disordered. But what if it helps other students, if at least some, by not shoving calorie counting and obsessiveness down their throat?

Unknown said...

in response to anonymous, mass media would sure like you to think that, in accordance with the BMI scale *which doesn't work btw unless you're talking seriously obese or seri underweight* over half of americans are fat. this really isn't the case. there's a lot of fear-mongering and self-hate encouraging. but the amount of people with Binge Eating Disorder, Anorexia, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Bulimia or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, I can guarantee you is much higher than the number of supposedly obese people. I'm not stating that it doesn't happen. It does.

A lot. Just not as much as mass media wants you to think.