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Cross Your T's, Dot Your... Food?

By Esteban M. Guijarro, Kathryn R. Klingle, and Julie S. Monrad

UPDATED: November 6, 2014 10:20AM

Last week, many Harvard students collectively went on a diet—whether they wanted to or not. The food in some dining halls was suddenly coded according to unclear nutritional guidelines. Three categories—red, yellow, and green—let students know the moral value of their food before they put it on their trays.

At its core, the system—deemed an “intervention” for our dining halls—affects an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences with food. The dot system—which is currently in place in Dunster and Mather House—explicitly discourages individuals from choosing and enjoying red and yellow foods and might embarrass them if they do. Certain foods that may once have been comforting and relished for their taste might now provoke feelings of guilt or shame for students paying attention to the new code. At the extreme, those who may already be struggling to maintain healthy eating habits could be swayed to abandon their acumen altogether as a result of the inescapable dots.

The dot system imposes a standard and value on every food, which can feel like constant judgment to those for whom diet, weight, or shape has ever been tied up with a sense of achievement. If green is considered “good,” then competitive students—found by the multitude at Harvard—might begin to believe that there is more value in working towards the “best” diet, or the green ideal.

The “Be Bright, Eat Right” system also appears to consider each food individually instead of as part of a meal. No one food fills all our nutritional requirements. Instead, it takes a lot of different foods—some providing proteins, others carbs, vitamins, fats—to create balance. When we sit down in the dining hall, the foods we choose are in conversation with each other. A plate filled solely with green fruits and veggies would be just as imbalanced as one stacked with ranger cookies and froyo. A meal is not a stoplight intersection. It’s a painting. Given three globs of paint on a palate, most people would smear them around to create a mixture of hues and expression. Red foods mix with yellow foods to create a lovely orange meal.

And these meals are not “good” or “bad.” They’re normal. After all, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your emotions, your hunger, and whether or not you’ve been up all night working on CS50. Normal eating is giving oneself permission to eat for any number of reasons. Normal eating doesn’t exist within the rigid labeling system that has been prescribed in our dining halls.

It is difficult to fathom the magnitude of shame and isolation that seriously discourages an individual from sharing their legitimate and omnipresent eating concerns. This deficit in open-ended, non-judgmental conversation often fuels an inability to evoke sympathy, validation, and tangible support that certain individuals may need. The stoplight-system exacerbates the ubiquitous misunderstanding and subsequent lack of compassion for struggling individuals. It only increases the pre-existing hyper-awareness of body image and physique in society today. For that reason, it is an inconsiderate, arbitrary system of food-shaming that is unnecessarily infiltrating our Harvard community.

Expressing empathy may be difficult without having experienced eating concerns yourself. But by initiating a conversation, we can build a sympathetic and supportive environment in our Harvard community. Our competitiveness need not necessitate a lack of compassion for others, or for ourselves.

The dot system study’s explicit aim is to explore whether labeling foods in this way changes our eating habits. We are worried it will do just that. Perhaps this change will be helpful—maybe some of us will begin understanding nutrition a bit better as the system proposes. But change flows in both directions, and this one might do more harm than good. We worry how this change will look for us, and we worry how it will look for our peers. Once you have started, it is hard to stop counting, stop restricting. It is hard to remember what normal eating looks like. For those just barely starting to figure it out again, the last thing we want—the last thing we need—is a new system of judgment, a fresh set of restrictions, someone else telling us what we can and cannot eat.

We are worried because we should have agency over our own bodies. And agency means choosing food on our own terms—not someone else’s.

Esteban M. Guijarro ’16 is an anthropology concentrator in Dunster House. Julie S. Monrad ’15 is an English concentrator in Leverett House. Kathryn R. Klingle ’17 lives in Eliot House. All three are members of Harvard Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: November 4, 2014

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the program whose actual name is "Be Bright, Eat Right." It also incorrectly stated that the program will be expanding beyond Dunster and Mather Houses, when in fact it will not.

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