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Calorie Counts in the Dining Hall: Harmful or Helpful?

by Elizabeth Owers | University of Notre Dame

F Posted in: College, Voices P Posted on: September 27, 2011
headshot elizabeth owers Elizabeth Owers

In the past few years, fast food restaurants and state legislatures alike have made a push for more informed eating by making nutrition facts more readily available. It’s very easy to underestimate calories, so posting calorie counts in prominent locations may surprise consumers and encourage them to select better foods.  Some college campuses have adopted this practice, saying it will help curb weight gain among students and foster a healthier lifestyle. But is posting nutritional information, such as calorie and fat counts, on dining hall food labels the best way to achieve this goal?

After a year in college, I have to say no.

The atmosphere at many universities is intense and competitive, leading to high levels of stress among the student body and creating a breeding ground for disordered eating. Posting nutrition facts in the dining hall will not directly cause an eating disorder, but it could be triggering to someone who is struggling with or prone to one.  Obsessive calorie counting is already a daily battle for most individuals with eating disorders, and in their minds labels on the food would just be glaring reminders of their overindulgence and lack of willpower. In addition, students dealing with low self-esteem and poor body image might feel that their peers are judging them for being the “fat person” topping off a 418-calorie serving of apple crisp with 100 calories’ worth of frozen yogurt, when in reality they are too excited about the return of the Irish Mint flavor to notice the average-sized girl at the front of the line.

Even for students who have healthy relationships with food, posting calorie counts would not be very effective.  Chances are, the guy whose tray holds a hamburger, a Coke, and a plate full of mozzarella breadsticks wouldn’t be too concerned if he knew that the meal he was about to consume totaled 1,916 calories. The more likely scenario is that health-conscious students would stick with “low-calorie” food because they think it is healthier, when in reality they may be missing out on important nutrients like protein and calcium. For instance, a peanut butter and banana sandwich with 380 calories is in most ways more nutritious than a lettuce-and-crouton with 105 calories. Yet if someone focuses on the calorie count, they might be deterred from eating the sandwich, which is also much more satiating than the salad. While there are some students who should watch their weight, most active 18-year-olds just need to maintain a healthy diet to support a growing body. In fact, studies have shown that college freshmen gain on average 5 pounds, not the stereotypical 15, so the emphasis should be on overall nutrition and not on reducing calories.

This isn’t to say I oppose full disclosure. I like knowing what is in my food, and having this information helps me to make healthier choices. However, I believe that the appropriate place for nutrition facts is on a website or a poster on the side of the dining hall, similar to the practice of many fast food restaurants. Also, I have no problem with labels that designate foods low in fat, calories, or sodium. The objective should be to encourage a healthy, well-balanced diet, not to turn meals into a numbers game.

Elizabeth Owers Elizabeth Owers Elizabeth Owers is a Voices Contributor from New Orleans, Louisiana. A sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, she is majoring in pre-medical studies with a minor in Catholic social tradition.

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