At a Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) meeting earlier this year, HUDS spokeswoman Crista Martin and Jessica Zdeb, the coordinator of the Food Literacy Project, introduced the ongoing debate regarding the nutritional facts labels displayed above each dish in the dining hall. In their current form, the cards provide a profile for each dish in the dining hall, detailing their caloric, carbohydrate, fiber, protein, and total and saturated fat contents. Those who oppose the nutritional placards argue their looming presence above the dishes fosters unhealthy attitudes toward food—guilt, anxiety, shame. By highlighting the quantitative and not qualitative characteristics of the food, the dining hall—or so they argue—actively encourages students to eat nutrients, not food. Opponents want the cards to be eliminated, pared down or available exclusively online.
At the time, I adamantly defended the placards as tools necessary for informed culinary decisions. But blissfully eating my tapas, I wasn’t sure I could continue to justify my position—hence the hypocrisy. If eating calorie count-free, food consciousness-free in Barcelona for a week was so beautiful, so relaxing and so satisfying, how could I still be so against taking away the food fact counts in the dining hall?
The opponents to placards take a qualitative approach to food that works beautifully in Barcelona. The nutrition facts on every item in the supermarket (except the new-wave diet juices) were rarely prominent and always limited, and the obesity rate there is an impressive 11% compared to the United States’ 31%. (Boston, for a more apropos comparison, is just shy of 14%.) But the U.S. is a different place. In Barcelona, a walking city par excellence, markets with fresh produce abound; tiny, flavor-loaded tapas replace our leaden meat-filled entrees; and fast food, despite the occasional McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, struggles to gain a foothold.
But it wasn’t principally the lack of nutritional fact bombardment that made the seafood paella so memorable, or the sea salt and saffron so vibrant. It was the convivial atmosphere in Barcelona, the celebration of great food and great company. In the U.S., all too often, the psychological relationship to food is skewed. For many Americans, food is sinful: it’s an escape, a treatment for boredom, a cure for depression. According to Mollie Katzen, celebrated cookbook writer and recipe advisor to HUDS, healthy eating should be about adding great ingredients and savoring each bite—drizzling olive oil on salads to unleash the nutrients in the greens or sprinkling quinoa into a cup of soup to provide a serving of whole grains and some fiber. But all too often it’s equated with deprivation.
In an interview earlier this month, Katzen lamented the notion that nutrition and satisfaction are mutually exclusive. “Diets are all too often about subtraction,” she said. “Atkins? No carbohydrates. Vegetarianism? No meat. This approach is where we really get in trouble. A traditional Italian would never think that way.”
This reductionist approach has reached new extremes. Over-obsession with calorie counts and micronutrient contents—exactly what HUDS is trying to avoid by putting away the placards, is itself a disease, orthorexia. Akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder, orthorexia (meaning literally “correct appetite”) is characterized by an unhealthy fixation on healthy eating and was first identified by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997. HUDS is rightly concerned with this emerging eating disorder, but there are better methods of treatment than the short-term solution of stuffing the nutritional cards in a drawer. They should design programs that celebrate food, that foster positive attitudes toward eating—more cooking classes, food tastings, and apple-picking field trips.
So yes, in an ideal world, we’d all follow the ancient Okinawan practice and stop eating when we’re 80% full. But personally, I don’t know what 80% full feels like, and surrounded by food I haven’t prepared myself, I don’t want to live by guesswork. (In many restaurants, a stick of butter can easily slip into a meal and go unnoticed by even the most calorie-conscious diners.) These placards aren’t mandates. They’re tools to make informed decisions, implements to hold the chefs accountable for preparing healthy foods, and methods of educating ourselves on portion size and nutritional content—a way of budgeting splurges. The exact information that should beprinted on the cards is debatable, but their existence shouldn’t be. As a student body, we pride ourselves on being cognizant of our decisions in all other aspects of life, so why would we purposefully push for ignorance when it comes to the food we eat? As much as I thoroughly enjoyed my worry-free sojourns in Barcelona, I’m not willing to part with nutrition information on a daily basis.
—Columnist Rebecca A. Cooper can be reached at email@example.com.