OPINION: Hungry for change: How dining hall labels fail students

A glimpse of hell: Malott dining hall, 12:15 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Neither quiz nor test nor final exam can match the stress of pushing through the ravenous lunch mob in pursuit of a Beyond Burger — and the defeat of not finding one there. Barely 5-feet-2-inches and often on the verge of being crushed by the stampede, I’ve learned to expect stress from my Scripps College lunch excursions.

But beyond their busy, overwhelming atmospheres, dining halls create stress for students in other, more private ways. Recently, I had a conversation with a few friends about the calorie contents posted in each dining hall. For many students, such blatant displays of calories can be damaging and stress-inducing.

Since that conversation, I’ve thought a lot about the way our dining halls approach health and wellness. On one hand, simplistic labeling (food, calories, allergens) inadvertently creates an environment in which mindful eating is synonymous with calorie-counting. On the other hand, the United States has one of the highest rates of obesity, due in part to Americans’ highly caloric diets.

Calorie counts offer little insight into the nutritional value of items served in dining halls and lack meaning when presented in a vacuum. A mere number fails to indicate what comprises those calories, whether a food item is highly proteinaceous or fatty, whether it offers essential vitamins, or even what size serving correlates to the posted caloric content.

But this does not mean our dining halls should be completely devoid of calories. Some studies have found that rates of obesity in college students hover around 30 percent. While the efficacy of calorie counting as a means of combating obesity remains questionable, college students’ need for guidance in making healthy decisions remains crucial.

I understand how mentally and physically damaging it is to be constantly bombarded by calories while in the dining halls. The current system of labeling is frustrating. At once, it dances around the lack of balanced diets on campus while also propagating restrictive habits and toxic mentalities.

Nonetheless, students must have access to more information about their food. Signage in dining halls could be more nuanced, at the very least consistently offering serving sizes and some degree of information concerning the nutritional contents (sodium, vitamins, proteins, etc.) of a food. Though some dining halls on campus do have some signs with this information, namely Harvey Mudd College and Scripps, the labeling is inconsistent, unclear, and sometimes incorrect.

Offering more information about dining hall foods combats the notion that health begins and ends with caloric intake. For some students, college may be the first time in their lives during which they are making their own choices regarding food. It is important for students to develop their own understanding of nutrition — one that extends beyond calories — before being catapulted into the adult world upon graduation.

Recent FDA regulations made it unlawful for most restaurants and dining services to not display calories. For better or worse, calorie counts will be even more present in American food establishments. Interface with calorie counts now may help students navigate their interactions with food later in life.

The issue extends beyond “calories are good” and “calories are bad.” For some folks, interface with calories serves as a perpetuating factor in restrictive eating habits. For others, it serves as an important component of recovering from an eating disorder. Ultimately, we cannot gauge to what degree calories are harming or helping students.

Instead, the dialogue should be shifted toward how dining halls can empower students to make the right choices for their specific needs. This begins with more nuanced labels in which calories are not made to seem as though they are the only information that matters.

Lily Borak PZ ’21 is a neuroscience major from Newton, MA. She loves telling everyone Boston sports teams are the best despite never really watching Boston sports.

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