For most students, a trip to the dining hall can be a much-needed escape from the stress of the day. For me, it’s the day’s biggest challenge.
I have an eating disorder. My diagnosis is OSFED, which stands for Otherwise Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder. In the winter of 2016, my eating disorder took a turn for the worse as I began to drown under the stress of classes and living on my own. During this time, I used the calorie contents listed above most dining hall items to dangerously restrict my intake.
Luckily, I was able to receive treatment and return to Northwestern at the beginning of 2017. But, eating in a normal way is still a daily challenge. Convincing myself to go into the dining hall and eat a meal my dietician would approve of can be a daunting task. Sometimes, I am not able to eat a full meal because I can’t help but add the calories of my food choices in my head, and the resulting number terrifies me.
The FDA explains that they are beginning to require restaurants to label menus with calorie contents to “fill a critical information gap and help consumers make informed and healthful dietary choices.” The logic used by the FDA is simple: If calorie counts are provided, people will be more mindful of the number of calories they consume, and will end up healthier overall. Northwestern dining halls also include calorie contents of foods served. However, the FDA fails to mention that these calorie listings are not proven to increase the health of the population, and can even harm some people, such as myself.
Even for people who do not have eating disorders, knowing the calorie content of food is not necessarily helpful. A statement from the Department of Agriculture’s Nutrition Evidence Library reads “limited and inconsistent evidence exists to support an association between menu calorie labels and food selection or consumption.” This means that the calorie labels are likely not doing anything to prevent obesity. This statement is supported by the CDC-reported rise in obesity from in the past 10 years from 32 percent to 38 percent of the adult population. During this period, more restaurants and universities have added calorie labels to their menus.
Also, not all calories are equal, and cutting calories alone will not necessarily result in weight loss. The Telegraph reports, “A calorie’s worth of salmon (largely protein) and a calorie’s worth of olive oil (purely fat) have very different biological effects from a calorie’s worth of white rice (refined carbohydrate) – particularly with regard to body weight and fatness.” Weight loss – and gain – is very complex, and anyone looking to lose weight successfully should consult a dietician rather than just trying to eat fewer calories.
In the worst case scenarios, having calories listed above dining hall foods can be destructive. Take Kaitlyn Lee*, for example, a Weinberg sophomore who is currently in treatment for anorexia nervosa. Since Lee’s disorder causes her to fear foods considered unhealthy or high in calories, she has trouble eating enough in the dining halls.
“I enter the dining hall wanting to follow my meal plan, but when I see how many calories are in something that I already consider hard to eat, it makes it very hard for me to put it on my plate,” Lee explains.
Not only are calorie counts on menus likely not preventing obesity, they can worsen or possibly cause eating disorders. In an interview with ABC News, clinical psychologist Lara Pence expressed concern about the rise of calorie-counting apps and its effect on eating disorder prevalence: “I think that it's tying into the eating disorder mentality of making sure that you know everything that's going into your body, having those obsessive thoughts of calorie counting, keeping track of your weight, keeping track of what goes in and what goes out through exercise.” Calorie listings on menus have the same effect, even promoting obsessions with calories for diners who don't download an app to track their count.
Hannah Collins, a Weinberg junior, had a similar experience. While she is learning through treatment and nutrition education not to let calorie content affect her eating, she still struggles when she sees others makes choices based on these numbers. She discussed an instance where she saw another student check the calorie contents of some vegan chicken nuggets and decide not to have any because of what she saw.
“I felt so anxious that maybe it wasn’t just because I was sick that I had qualms about eating something like that, maybe it was just objectively unhealthy to eat that, and I wound up not getting the vegan chicken nuggets,” Collins said.
Recovering from an eating disorder can be very difficult, as both Lee* and Collins emphasized, and I can verify. We should not be making it harder by having calorie contents prominently listed in Northwestern dining halls. Similarly, we should not be promoting an obsession with calories in non-eating disordered individuals, especially because these calorie counts have not been shown to reduce obesity. Northwestern should remove the calorie contents from dining hall items, and instead advertise the use of the Sodexo calorie calculator available online for those students who wish to know this information.
If calories were not in such plain view in the dining halls, the hardest part of my day could be improved. If I could enter the dining hall and make choices based on my preferences, rather than calorie contents and maintaining my recovery at Northwestern would be much easier.
*=name changed to protect privacy