Living in New York City this summer, I was startled by the sudden emergence of Nutrition Facts labels popping up on food items in coffee shops and restaurants. At my favorite gourmet lunch spot, Le Pain Quotidien, I opened the menu to find that their goat cheese and arugula salad contained 530 calories. Somehow the mathematical breakdown of the calorie counts took the lovely Parisian charm out of the whole experience.
When I returned to Yale I found the dining halls cluttered with labels, telling me that one Grilled Chicken Breast Au Poivre with sauce contains approximately 197.24 calories, 7.5 grams of fat and 4.03 grams of carbohydrates, among other things. The nutrition facts help some students make healthier choices during chaotic and rushed mealtimes. For other, more oblivious students, this column might be the first they’ve heard of these labels. But for a surprisingly large number of undergraduates, the nutrition facts glare up at them like dangerous temptations feeding their obsessive thoughts about food, weight and thinness, instigating a battle with numbers and calorie counting that can devolve into the life-threatening diseases of anorexia, bulimia and anorexia athletica. Given that college is a hotbed of eating disorders, Yale should remove these number-heavy signposts from the dining halls and encourage students to develop healthful, intuitive eating habits.
For impressionable freshmen — both girls and boys — entering into undergraduate life can be an overwhelming transition. Food often becomes an unhealthy outlet for dealing with anxiety. Extremes in eating behavior emerge in the contexts of late-night studying, binge drinking and eating in dining halls. Many students begin dieting, restricting food, over-exercising, over-eating and purging during the formative years of college. Under the stresses of paper writing, exams, extracurricular activities, dorm life and open-ended schedules, first-time college students are particularly vulnerable to falling victim to eating disorders.
After puberty, the late teenage years through early 20s is the prime developmental time for the start of eating disorders. The social pressures of making new friends, dating and navigating sexuality can aggravate body image problems and exacerbate the drive to be thin that already runs rampant in contemporary media. Aside from the environmental factors that make undergraduates especially at risk for developing eating disorders, certain personalities are more prone to anorexia and bulimia than others. The perfectionist and Type A behaviors that abound at places like Yale are the same traits that often facilitate eating disorders.
Given the susceptible condition that undergraduates are immersed in, the Yale College administration should take every precaution to ensure that students do not fall prey to eating disorders.
By posting nutrition facts on index cards in front of the serving plates in the dining halls, the University not only encourages the statistics-obsessed behaviors of students already battling eating disorders; it also puts healthy students more at risk for developing obsessive or neurotic eating issues. For incoming freshmen accustomed to home-cooked family dinners and eating freely given their instinctive levels of hunger and fullness, the nutrition facts in the dining halls could be their first awareness of the calorie factor. Flooded by such a numbers-based breakdown of food, students are more prone to slip down paths of dieting and calorie counting. Since more than a third of “normal diets” devolve into pathological dieting, listing the nutrition facts above the hot plates is more destructive than informative.
While some people benefit from knowing the exact caloric content of their food, and while knowing food’s nutritional information can be a reassuring and helpful tool for certain students, the University can still make this information accessible on the Yale Dining Web site. By placing the numbers right in front of the food, the University triggers food restriction in some and promotes a relationship to nutrition based on literal food values instead of on intuitive and balanced eating habits. Harvard undergraduates and parents voiced such complaints about listing calorie information in dining halls before the Harvard University Dining Services opted to remove the index cards from their cafeterias.
The celebrity status of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity speaks volumes to the fact that our dining halls are statistics-conscious. The New York City Board of Health instituted nutrition fact regulations as part of the nationwide fight against obesity, but Yale College is not Manhattan: It only takes a stroll through the Payne Whitney gym at midnight, its treadmills and ellipticals still racing with neurotic students reading textbooks while exercising, to see that Yale is more a landscape of anorexia than of obesity. And since the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders closed last summer due to budget constraints, the resources to help undergraduates overcome eating disorders are harder to come by on campus than ever.
At the least, Yale should take a stand to reduce the environmental factors that might spawn the life-threatening diseases of anorexia, bulimia and other pathological eating problems by removing nutritional information from its dining halls.
Haley Hogan is a senior in Berkeley College.