Friday, May 01, 2009

Calorie counts in college dining halls

Over on the Academy of Eating Disorders listserv, there's been a discussion going about whether it's good (or even just OK) to post calorie counts for food served on campus. I've listened with interest, and a growing sense of frustration and horror, as both researchers and clinicians debate the pros and cons.

What most of them seem to be missing--or deliberately downplaying--is the damage these calorie listings can do, not just for people with eating disorders but for everyone. And especially women. About three-quarters of women say their eating is disordered in some way, and my personal experience (for myself and watching my friends and acquaintances) certainly bears this out.

It gets right up my nose to hear the sometimes pompous arguments made by academics and researchers on an issue like this. Statements like this one: "Awareness doesn't equal obsession." Um, maybe not if you're a 40-year-old male doctor who's never had an eating issue. If you're a woman in today's culture? I beg to differ. Many years ago when I "did" Weight Watchers I was aware that eating on the WW meal plan simply replaced one food issue with another. Instead of constant anxiety about how much and what I was eating and whether I was gaining or losing weight, I became a good little obsessive weigher of foods and follower of instructions. In nine months on the program I never deviated from it once. Not even for a bite. This was a testament not to my willpower or moral virtue but to the deep level of obsession that being hyper-aware of my calorie intake inspired in me.

I'm quite sure I'm not alone in this.

Which is why I was happy to see this article, written by a senior at Yale, arguing against listing calorie counts for food served on campus.

In theory, maybe "awareness" of calories isn't a bad thing. In reality, I can't see the upside.


Anonymous said...

I just don't see how THEY can't see that this is deeply, deeply inappropriate for a college setting, where students are known to be at high risk for eating disorders.

If people want to look at calorie and nutritional information, by all means, make that stuff available. But putting it in an unavoidable eye-line for everyone is little more than a shaming tactic meant to prove to people how stupid they are for daring to eat food.

For them to dress it up as simple "awareness" is disingenuous at best.

Fat Angie said...

On our campus, they encourage us to calculate our "carbon footprint" instead of calories, fat, etc. ( High-calorie foods like meats and cheeses destroy the earth if you eat them. Fruits and vegetables (as long as they aren't tropical, but then again I'm allergic so I wouldn't eat bananas anyway) are okay, but you better not eat too many of them either or you'll destroy the planet.

I'm all for conservation, but this is something that a guilt-driven disordered eater doesn't need.

Harriet said...

Geez! Why do so many people feel free to load up the act of eating with guilt from all directions?

I think there's a larger cultural metaphor at play here. I don't *want* to wrap my mind around it, frankly.

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything wrong with putting up the information. If they started restricting food purchases to a limited number of calories, that would be a problem. From what are you hoping to protect the eating disordered? And why? Why would calorie content worsen an eating disorder? I think it would make undernourishment less likely. I'm all for making objective information available and don't put a lot of importance into the fear that an irrational person might use it irrationally; such a person doesn't need an excuse to be irrational.

Harriet said...

Where to begin, anonymous? I'll start here:

Seeing calorie counts of food can trigger restricting and relapses for people with EDs. Your comment shows a basic lack of understanding of how EDs work. I suggest you read up before weighing in.

Second, I'm not talking only about people with EDs. I have no ED, and consider myself a more or less rational person. Yet seeing calorie counts of foods makes me feel irrational, to put it mildly. It makes me afraid to eat at all, honestly. It's not the calorie counts themselves so much as the cultural context around them--the underlying idea that we're all supposed to eat as little as possible.

I don't know if you're male or female but I'd guess you're a guy, who maybe has not felt the pressure to be thin too much.

Believe me, it's a powerful force in many, many people's lives. Not just those with EDs.

Anonymous said...


I was wondering if you would be willing to blogroll my site about my own therapy-related experiences . . . ?? (Thank you in advance!)

- Marie

Lori said...

I think this is such a terrible idea. Most women have absolutely no idea how many calories they should be eating in a day, and assume they should be eating significantly less then even what is recommended by health professionals. A lot of college-aged women would see a sign telling them a salad has 600 calories and decide they'd be a disgusting pig if they ate it, not realizing that 600 calories for a meal is perfectly appropriate for many women (and many even require more).

It is, as the article noted, encouraging people to make food choices based on statistics rather than their own bodies. Nobody is barring anybody from finding out calorie counts on their own. I'd have no problem with the university making calorie counts and nutritional information available upon request. But there is no reason why everybody choosing to dine in the dining hall should be subjected to the kind of diet mindset this "nutritional information" will encourage.

mamster said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I posted on my blog a while ago arguing against calorie counts for a variety of reasons, but the eating disorder angle didn't even occur to me (yep, I'm a guy) until someone emailed me to point it out.

Shoving nutrition facts in people's faces is anti-food and anti-health. I'm really happy to see more people speaking out against it.

Ari J. Brattkus said...

Hi Anon,

My 11 year old daughter developed an eating disorder at age 9. She was obsessed with calorie counting and knew (and still knows)down to plus/minus 5, how many calories are in any food. At her absolute lowest point of illness she was restricting to 600 calories a day.

Calories are like a drug to a person with an eating disorder. The want to know everything about them and then spend all day thinking about them. Posting calorie counts to an eating disordered person is like having heroin available at all times to an addict. I know that sounds weird to you, but it is the truth. Luckily my daughter is in recovery and we avoid all labels -- food is food, not a number to her now.

familyfeedingdynamics said...

I'd also like to see any evidence that posting calories and nutrition information helps people make more "nutritious" choices. I recall a recent study where putting "healthy" choices on a menu actually INCREASED the incidence of folks choosing the "WORST" options. The psychology behind it all is complex, from every angle, not just ED. When you bring external rules about eating, the "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" it messes with our minds, creates cravings etc. We should be honoring variety, freshness, eating things that taste good (including well prepared fruits and vegetables) and not being slaves to points or numbers, or cerebral eating which almost always backfires.

Gwen said...

If they want to have the information available, say, behind the counter, that's fine. But what irritates me about posting it up on the wall or on the foods, is that it is basically making the assumption that I need to know that information, and that everyone should be concerned with the calorie content of their food. It sends a powerful message to have a sign like that up. It's like having a Warning sign, Be Careful, Tread Lightly. I don't want to feel anxiety when I'm ordering food. I want to look at the menu and say, "What looks good to me? What am I in the mood for?" But the addition of the calorie information will make me panic. As someone who's had an eating disorder, I can admit that the existence of the sign or anything else containing calorie information displayed will REQUIRE me to look at it. And I will feel shame if I order anything on the menu that has anything over 200 calories in it. I think wanting to know the calorie content of every single morsel of food you put in your mouth IS obsession. If they HAVE to know it before they make a food selection (and there's no medical reason for needing to know it) then I don't think that's a healthy relationship with food.

Harriet said...

Marie, Looks like you haven't updated your blog in nearly a year--not sure what the value of linking would be. Talk to me?

Rachel said...

I have mixed feelings about this. And as someone who DOES have an ED, I feel like I should "weigh in" (haha)on this one. While it is certainly true that calorie counts can be incredibly strong triggers for many people, nutrition information is often really important. My treatment program involved following a meal plan that counted the proteins, fats and carbohydrates in each meal to work towards balanced eating. As I tried to follow that, it became really frustrating that dishes in my college dining hall were often impossible to estimate for nutritional value. Sure, this "counting" of nutrients could become disordered behavior as well, but for many people it is a quite helpful strategy while learning how to feed your body the food it really needs.

Moral of the story: Don't be too quick to judge what may or may not work for others!

Harriet said...

Hi Cinnamonapple,
I'm all for the information being available. Just not shoved in everyone's face. What about the people for whom it's a big trigger? What about those of us who don't want to know at that moment the exact calorie count of what we're eating?

Your college dining hall should offer the info online, where you or anyone can look it up whenever they want.

And the thing that really gets me is the moral imperative behind putting those counts up for all the world to see. It's a message about eating LESS, always, in this society.

Em said...

I'd like to see carb counts, at least. There's a lot of hidden sugar in food that can play havoc with glucose / insulin, and it would be helpful to be able to avoid it.

Amanda said...

I wish I did have calorie information in college, but that's me, and compulsive eating had different triggers for me. After my initial "Why wouldn't you give them the info???" reaction, I realized that the point is to give them the information but not throw it in their face. Agreed. By putting it online, colleges would put the responsibility with the students who want the info without shoving it down everyone else's throat.

Harriet said...

So to speak.


A said...

I have to say, as a person that is recovering from an ED -- my ED certainly LIKES the calorie count. Whether it is good for me as a person is up for debate.

My university dining hall displayed the menu with the nutritional information outside the cafeteria on a board -- and then INSIDE where you were served the food -- and online -- in RED ink. Nice. . . needless to say it made selecting dinner an interesting experience.

I don't really know what my thoughts are about this, because I am still so biased, but it might be easier not to know that that piece of chicken has XXX calories

Chelsea said...

I counted calories from last fall up until about a month ago. The descent into an obsessive madness was slow, but it eventually became such a set part in my life that the idea of going a day without counting calories was very difficult. I would even be internally edgy if I didn't exercise for two days in a row. Thankfully, I saw where I was headed, talked to a friend and stopped counting calories altogether.

I have to say that, though counting was helpful to lose weight, it didn't encourage healthful eating. I would forgo a banana for a piece of chocolate because bananas have more calories. But, which is healthier? Which is actually fueling my body? Obviously the banana.

What people need to realize is that knowing the calorie count of food isn't going to make someone healthier. Knowing what foods are beneficial to the body and paying attention to when hunger begins and ends will. Posting calorie counts in a place where so many young women are susceptible to disordered eating will not help these women make healthier choices. It will only force lower-calorie choices on them, and with that, the shame felt for eating something with higher calories.

People need to be taught healthy eating habits (the body knows what it needs; therefore, eat when hungry, stop when satisfied [before that "full" feeling], choose lots of fruits, grains and veggies) rather than having calorie counts shoved down their throats. I know, as someone who still occasionally feels like she must know her daily caloric intake, it would have been far healthier for me to stick to HEALTH standards rather than my supposed "ideal" calorie count.

Valerie said...

Hmm interesting point..
But it should be offered if the student is interested

Marsha @ A Weight Lifted said...

I've had a similar conversation going on my blog and various social media outlets. You can see some of it here on this post about calories on restaurant menus

Bottom line, folks definitely have different opinions about this, but I think anyone who has worked with people struggling with disordered eating or eating disorders -- which includes, I believe, the vast majority of folks in this country as the diet mentality is so universal -- anyone who's worked w/ these folks can't support posting calorie information anywhere. IMHO

Katy said...

This is old, but I just wanted to say that as a person going to college next year, I'm very, very happy to hear that colleges have nutritional information available. I understand that it's not a great idea for it to be posted right above the food (although I would like that), but I think it's important for students to be able to make healthful choices. Ones high in protein and vitamins, for example. Food is fuel for me, and I want to make sure I get what I need--I'm vegetarian and sometimes getting everything I need is a bit of a challenge.

Anonymous said...

I understand your concerns here, but I feel like this is a case of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few. As a college student, I would love it if my dining hall posted nutritional information. I'm not a huge health nut, but I try to watch what I each and make sure I'm eating a balanced diet. While I understand that having this information posted could act as a trigger for some, I feel like I have a right to know what I'm putting in my body. In the real world, the food you buy has this information splattered all over the packaging, so I don't really understand the implication that posting the same info in a dining hall is somehow more harmful. Ultimately, you can't trigger something that isn't there, and while eating disorders are horrible, vicious illnesses, obesity and a general lack of awareness regarding what we put in our mouths are both more prevalent issues. I don't think it's fair to expect college dining halls to curtail these efforts in an attempt to shelter a certain segment of students from information that is already available almost everywhere else.

Harriet said...

We'll have to agree to disagree, then.