Seeing a number on a food label used to stop me in my tracks. Now, I avoid checking calorie counts at all costs – but other students aren’t always able to make this same decision.
My freshman year of college, I was struggling with an eating disorder that had silently plagued my adolescent years and grew progressively worse as I left home and moved into my kitchenless dorm – a room that rested on top of not one, but three dining halls. Downstairs was the most popular of the three because of its buffet serving style, so that’s where I frequented my meals most nights and occasional mornings.
When I first arrived at school, I was on crutches with an injured ankle, which forced me to take a break from gym routines and other coping mechanisms reliant on physical activity. Due to my dependance on exercise to keep my body dysmorphia in check, behaviors I thought I’d already recovered from began creeping back into my life — before taking it over in full force. By February 2020 – right before Covid – I resumed calorie counting and attempted to “compensate for my meals” with unhealthy behaviors. What plagued me the most was entering the dining hall and being faced with a seemingly infinite amount of food choices. The pressure to make the “right” choice was daunting, and the right choice in my mind almost always aligned with fewer calories.
In the dining halls, food items were listed on a screen or name-card with the calories displayed directly next to or below each food item. Often going against my cravings, I’d let the number of calories posted – plainly visible and obnoxiously unavoidable – dictate what I did or didn’t eat. Having set my mind on a cut-off number that designated an acceptable amount of calories, anything that fell outside of this range was immediately scrapped.
In November 2020, I finally began seeing a nutritionist through the Student Health Center, who began my treatment with lessons in intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is an anti-diet mentality that rests on the principle of honoring your hunger and making peace with food. Practicing intuitive eating includes learning how to detect and satisfy your hunger cues – both by recognizing the best meal/snack times for your body and the specific cravings you’re experiencing – feeling your fullness, respecting your body, and accepting that food can be both fuel and pleasurable. The first order of business in my recovery journey: Stop calorie counting.
At this point, I was lucky enough to live in an apartment with a full kitchen where I could cook my own meals to align with my hunger cravings and comfortability. To avoid obsessive calorie counting, I began crossing out calories on my groceries immediately after bringing them home. While there were nutrition facts for certain items still ingrained in my mind, this helped divert my attention from the calories and instead focus on meeting my nutritional needs and honoring my hunger. Had I still been living in the dorms, my calorie counting habits would have been inescapable.
College students are particularly at risk for developing eating disorders due to the tumultuous circumstances they may endure during this transitional period. The majority of students who utilize the dining halls are first-year students, as there are often requirements for students to purchase a meal plan while living in the dorms. Freshman year can be a stressful time as it requires students to adjust to changing routines, an entirely new set of peers, and higher levels of academic pressure. This may lead students to experience a “need for control,” which could manifest in unhealthy eating behaviors like calorie counting and restricting.
I share my story to underscore the point that schools need to address the risks of disordered eating in a number of ways, including eliminating involuntary calorie information that, for students like me, can impact mental health. Recent research has shown that in undergraduates, calorie tracking is associated with eating disorder behaviors. Calorie counting not only includes monitoring one’s calorie intake, but may encompass tracking calories burned, either by exercise or with smartwatches. When a student struggles with body image or disordered eating, this can create a toxic cycle of trying to “compensate” for calories eaten by reaching a certain number of calories burned each day. Transparency in the nutritional value of the food being provided to students is important but this information should be made readily available online and not presented involuntarily to students for whom it may cause unhealthy behaviors.
Displaying calorie counts next to food items is also misleading, as it alludes to the false conclusion that calories are the most important designator of health. In actuality, all calories are not of equal quality. Making educated food choices is less about calorie counting and more about maintaining a healthy lifestyle by keeping a balanced diet that spans across food groups. After the FDA enforced displaying calorie counts in restaurants with over 20 locations back in 2015, the Department of Agriculture’s Nutrition Evidence Library’s statement read: “Limited and inconsistent evidence exists to support an association between menu calorie labels and food selection or consumption.” In lay terms, this means that displaying calorie counts does not prevent obesity, as the FDA intended it to, and does not necessarily lead to “healthier” food choices made by the consumer. This statement is supported by recent CDC findings that reported a rise in obesity prevalence from 30.5% to 41.9% between 1999–2000 through 2017–March 2020. In this time period, more restaurants and universities have added calorie labels to their menus, demonstrating a lack of “success” in these initiatives.
Removing calorie contents from displays in dining halls is not a failsafe solution to eating disorders on college campuses. Other factors like social pressure, cultural factors around food, general anxiety, body image issues, and more can contribute to the development of eating disorders. Eliminating calorie displays is simply a productive and easily actionable step towards moving the emphasis away from calories and towards other aspects of health – like intuitive eating and maintaining a balanced diet based on quality and satisfaction rather than arbitrary numbers.