Counting Calories at Harvard

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After ten years of prominently posting nutritional information in its dining halls, Harvard University recently decided to remove the displays of each dish's calorie count. Its motivation was something that legislators in New York City and California did not consider when passing laws mandating that calorie counts be posted on the menu boards of chain restaurants -- concern about the information's potential effect on people struggling with eating disorders.

While there are no scientific data indicating that displaying calorie counts contributes to or exacerbates eating disorders, Harvard's action touches on a possible unintended consequence of blanket efforts to promote "healthy choices."

Students are overwhelmed with choices at college -- everything including what to major in and whom to be friends with. What to eat in the dining hall every day may seem like a relatively trivial choice, but for students living away from home -- and home-cooked meals -- for the first time, it is one of the most difficult. Pizza for breakfast? Ice cream for dinner? Potato chips at 3am? Why not?

But with no family dinners or lunch periods, it's also easy to overlook a friend going days without taking a bite. Eating disorders are often ways for those who feel powerless to assert control over their bodies and lives. The pressures of being in an unfamiliar environment with no support system can intensify that need for control, heightening it to destructive levels.

Colleges, especially selective and competitive ones like Harvard, must be hypersensitive to this issue because they are environments that select for and then breed perfectionism, a trait often associated with eating disorders. The Harvard Crimson's magazine reports that David B. Herzog, director of the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital, says, "Those who put more demands on themselves, are under great pressure, and are more competitive -- like the students who go here [to Harvard] -- are more conducive to eating disorders." He guesses that schools like Harvard have a higher percentage of students with eating disorders than other universities do.

I recently graduated from a highly competitive women's college, which is just the kind of environment where disordered eating thrives -- and not only because 90% of those who have eating disorders are women between twelve and twenty-five. Anxiety about gaining "the Freshman Fifteen" lurks in the back of every student's mind, and the dining hall gives students the perfect chance to commiserate about it -- if they even set foot in the place. Being in an environment that emphasizes perfection (and perfectionism) with a bunch of other perfectionists can be a recipe for anxiety.

While calorie counts posted in chain restaurants in New York City and California may reach people who actually need more knowledge to make healthier choices, posting the information next to every piece of food in a college dining hall communicates more than just the numbers -- it tells already anxious students that they need to worry constantly about what they put in their mouths. To make matters worse, the Crimson reports that reminders (read: warnings) like "a bagel is six pieces of toast" were posted as well. In an environment like that, you'd probably be hard-pressed to find a young woman who doesn't feel guilty about what she's eating.

In the midst of our hysteria over the obesity epidemic, we've come to equate cutting calories with making healthy choices. And for college-age women, that is potentially the unhealthiest message of all.

Elizabeth Wade is a research intern at the American Council on Science and Health (,