Content warning: This story contains discussion on counting calories and disordered eating.
I had never seen a 4,000 calorie cookie before visiting the dessert station at Sarge Dining Hall on campus. Almost all of the food signs, from casseroles to dipping sauces, in the Northwestern dining halls have calories counts listed on them. While some students don’t give this information a second thought, it can be difficult to ignore or potentially triggering for others like myself.
When I first arrived on campus, I was equally shocked and delighted that I had such easy access to these numbers. I was comforted by the calorie counts, thinking it was my ticket to losing weight by easily counting and restricting my calories. But as time went on I, of course, became obsessed with seeing these numbers. I began to question not only their validity, but also their purpose.
The moment I enter a dining hall, I am overwhelmed by the number of options at my disposal. I try to decide what looks the most appetizing and nutritious. And of course, there’s the awful thought that creeps into the back of my mind that the lowest calorie option is the healthiest one. But, choosing the foods with the lowest numbers only provides me some temporary satisfaction as I later grow hungry and upset with myself for not choosing the more fulfilling option.
In order to challenge some of my own problematic thinking, I began to reflect and ask where these numbers come from and how accurate they are. It’s clear that these food signs occasionally have typos. It’s highly unlikely the cookie I saw was actually 4,000 calories. It’s far more likely that it was 400, yet seeing that high number on the sign convinced me to not eat the cookie. This is not healthy eating. Avoiding the sugary and buttery treat may seem like a healthy decision, but all it did was send me into a spiral of stress and obsessing over calorie counts. My own experiences with seeing these numbers in the dining halls makes me question if putting the calorie labels on foods is actually encouraging students to make healthier choices.
According to the FDA’s website, we put calorie labels on foods so we know how much energy we are putting into our bodies because at its most basic level, a calorie is simply a unit of energy. The FDA also states that to be at a healthy body weight, you should “balance the number of calories you eat and drink with the number of calories your body uses.” Essentially, the FDA suggests that in order to lead a healthy lifestyle, we should take into account the number of calories we burn and consume each day. However, there is a direct correlation between tracking calories and disordered eating habits, according to a study done at Commonwealth University in 2017. Though the ingredients may be necessary on the food labels for allergy or dietary restrictions, the calories are not. And from a personal experience, these counts can be triggering, and I have to work hard to ignore the urge to restrict my diet.
I have thought about whether posting the calories of food might be necessary for students who frequently hit the gym and are attempting to achieve a certain physique through controlling their caloric intake. Though these arguments have some validity, the cost of these perceived benefits is hurting people struggling with mental disorders with these numbers. Simply eating in a dining hall can be difficult as it is and the calorie counts are only an added stressor. The best solution I’ve come up with to please both parties here is to put the calorie counts on a separate website for anyone curious to know them. For people like me, these numbers hold too much power and dictate too heavily the quantity of food we choose to put on our plates. If it’s on an external website, then eating in the dining hall would not be such a challenge. The calories do not need to be so in-your-face as you’re just trying to enjoy a meal.
In order to combat this issue, I would implore the school to take these counts off of the dining hall food signs and look further into educating their students on what leading a healthy lifestyle can realistically look like. It’s important to learn how to best fuel our bodies once we have moved away from home and begin to transition into looking after ourselves. I hope that sharing my experience of what eating in a dining hall is like for me helps other students who may be feeling the same way feel less alone.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Student Affairs Marketing / Northwestern Now.