Harvard students can now overanalyze their eating choices too.
“Eating isn’t fun anymore,” reads one particularly frank Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach (ECHO) poster. On a busy campus like Harvard, the most these posters may get out of passersby may be the moment or two they take to consider the message before hurrying off to class.
But for many at Harvard, these posters hit closer to home. In the weight-obsessed era of fad diets and diminishing waist sizes, what role do colleges play in ensuring that students have a healthy relationship with food? When do habits of college students who are watching what they eat go from healthy to unhealthy?
THE HARVARD GUIDE TO FOOD
The latest trend in university dining halls is to make the nutritional information of every dish more accessible. For the past 10 years, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) has placed individual index cards next to each dish detailing food figures such as grams of fat, serving size, and most prominently, number of calories.
“HUDS has always been motivated by one thing: how best to serve our students,” says Adams House dining hall manager David A. Seley. “We provide nutrition information in order for our students to have the tools available to make wise and healthy dining choices.”
Other Ivies have similar policies with regard to informing students just exactly what’s each dish. Three years ago, Princeton started an interactive nutritional analysis online of the dishes it serves in the Frist Campus Dining Center.
Yale too has caught on to the trend. For the past seven years, Yale University Dining Services (YUDS) has provided “menu item identifiers” listing the basic nutritional information of each dish along with its ingredients. “Students wanted to know the nutritional value of what we were providing so they could make informed decisions,” explains YUDS spokeswoman Karen J. Dougherty.
While these calorie counts might be accurate, the question of the benefit—or detriment—of this nutritional information on students’ eating habits remains an open question.
The problem is that competitive Ivy League institutions typically pull in loads of students who identify as perfectionists. According to David B. Herzog, director of the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Mass. General Hospital, these traits can have effects that go well beyond intense studying. “Those who put more demands on themselves, are under greater pressure, and are more competitive—like the students who go here—are more conducive to eating disorders,” He says.
This could possibly indicate that there are a higher percentage of students at Harvard with eating disorders than at other universities. “There aren’t definite statistics, but my guess is that’s the case,” Herzog says.
For the compulsive set, calorie-counters may actually provide more pain than gain. “For some, they will be helpful because of the concern that they don’t know exactly what’s in the food,” Herzog says. He adds that the effect may also be negative and exacerbate a fixation with numbers. “It’ll have them focused more on [numbers] than just being able to enjoy food. It takes out some of the natural part of eating.”
It’s not just Ivy League students who suffer, though.
“There are just some things about the college atmosphere that are conducive to eating disorders,” Herzog says. “First of all there’s the physical separation from home, the schedule around food changes a great deal; and then there’s the whole thing about going to a dining hall and social eating.”
ECHO co-director Steven A. McDonald ’08 recognizes that in this kind of environment “for some students, the cards may serve as a helpful guide toward more nutritious eating and a more conscious understanding of their body’s needs.” Other students, however, “may find the cards to be a stressor. ECHO certainly finds HUDS’s reminders such as ‘a bagel is six pieces of toast’ to be more harmful than good. Describing food in that manner makes it seem universally inappropriate for a student to enjoy a bagel.”
Nevertheless, to say that the general opinion of the calorie-count cards is negative would be a hefty assumption. After all, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale dining services all agree that their primary motivation is simply to provide students with enough information to make healthy, knowledgeable decisions.
Still, Herzog says, “it’s probably too much information for most people. You’re watching what someone else is eating and figuring out how many calories they’re eating. I think if they surveyed it, most people would probably agree that it’s too much information. But there’s probably not a small number of people who want that information, so I think it’s a good question—is it helpful to them?”
THE NUMBERS ON THE NUMBERS
For Harvard students at least, the “help” factor that Herzog spoke of seemed to be interestingly divided.
Like with many things in life, men and women were firmly split on this topic. In a poll with 75 Harvard students—42 women and 33 men—an overwhelming majority of the women says that the HUDS’s calorie-count and portion-size cards affected their food choices moderately to significantly, while an even larger majority of men polled says that it affected their choices “not at all.”
Thirty of the 42 women says that they wanted more nutritional information than was already provided, while only one woman polled says she wanted to see less. Five men said they wanted to see more information, and the rest replied either that it did not affect them at all, or that they wanted to see less information.
This leaves us with a puzzling question. If students—particularly women—want to see more nutritional information, yet also claim that it significantly or moderately affects their eating choices, is it necessarily a bad thing? Or does access to accurate facts outweigh the possible downsides?
“Well, it’s a complicated dynamic with its pluses and minuses,” Herzog says. “It’s also possible that over the course of four years, student reactions to the cards change. Year one that may become more of an issue. Over the course of four years, it may become less of an issue because people get used to it.”
Bottom line: “At the end of the day, it will be helpful to some,” Herzog says. Ultimately, HUDS may have learned that you can’t satisfy everyone. For now, they’re staying on course.