Freshman 15 Or ED? Your Choice!

Illustration for article titled Freshman 15 Or ED? Your Choice!

College cafeterias have started posting calorie counts in their cafeterias. What's wrong with this picture? (Besides the totally unrelated John Belushi image, that is.)

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Can I just say: I hate posting calories in any context. I hated it when they started posting them in New York's chain restaurants and I really hate that now colleges are apparently doing it. As someone without an eating disorder, seeing the calorie counts instantly makes eating into something clinical and strips it of some of its pleasure - so I can only imagine the effect it could have on someone whose attitude towards food was already disordered. I am evangelically of the opinion that in order to eat right, we need to take the morality out of food. It's not sinful, it's not wicked, and it's not bad. Food is a pleasure and we need to treat it as such - not as an enemy.

Rant over, I get why states - and now colleges - do it. People will make "smarter," more informed choices, goes the thinking. Those who didn't know that a doughnut was bad for you - or that (as we're always told) said doughnut has fewer calories than an enormous bagel with cream cheese - might take note. But I suspect, going by my own experiences, that a lot of people will still buy that bagel - and just feel worse about it.

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College students, as we know, are already vulnerable. Young women are particularly suceptible to the pressures that lead to disordered eating, and young men fall prey to the same forces. As Newsweek tells us, the issues may not be as clear-cut as in the past, but they're still very serious.

Dr. Richard Kreipe, a specialist in adolescent medicine whose research centers on eating disorders, says that while he has seen fewer cases of classic eating disorders like restrictive anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa in the past several years, the number of patients with eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS) has "almost doubled" nationally in the midst of America's obesity epidemic...Since 2000, the number of college students dieting, vomiting, or taking laxatives to lose weight has jumped from about 28 to 38 percent, according to the American College Health Association's annual surveys. Well-balanced caloric intake, with regular meals and physical activity-not dieting-is the best way to avoid obesity, says Kreipe, a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. That's why, in his view, calorie information doesn't benefit students. "Nutrition is not a simple thing that can be distilled down into a label," he says. "There's a tendency for people to overinterpret what a specific number means."

The problem, as ever, is that the focus still seems to be on "weight," rather than "health." Take the Freshman 15, which has always been treated as a hackneyed bad-uncle joke, but when weight is the scariest thing in the world, it becomes sinister. It arises, the article claims, from the "loss of structure" that college students experience; junk food, beer, anxiety, beer, dining hall portions and beer can also contribute. Living with other people can make young people self-conscious and, in some cases, fear of the fabled freshman weight gain may push vulnerable students to the other extreme.

The piece makes a very important point: this weight gain and disordered eating are by no means mutually exclusive - indeed, they're increasingly common partners.

"People are concerned about the fat kids being fat and the thin kids having anorexia...But people aren't concerned about the disordered eating among the overweight kids." For under- and overweight people alike, eating disorders can lead to a host of health issues, including electrolyte imbalances, fertility problems, impaired brain development, bone loss, and, in severe cases, death. The study also showed that disordered eating behavior leads to further weight gain over time.

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Experts in the article suggest alternatives, like nutrient density scores, that would "distinguish between items like a Coke, which is high in calories but low in nutrients, and avocado, which is rich in both calories and nutrients." My question is: why do they have the Coke at all? I'm not suggesting that cafeterias need to be macrobiotic, but it's not a college's responsibility to provide junk food for students - especially when it's invariably available at vending machines and bookstores elsewhere on campus. Penn State has "healthy dining halls" and one of Yale's colleges, (her daughter's) has been taken on by Alice Waters as a bastion of mass-slow-food. But shouldn't this be the rule, rather than the exception? Not to play the ugly American card, but it's absolutely true that European dining halls don't carry the same variety of junk - and certainly don't provide calorie counts. I understand that colleges walk a constantly-shifting line between guidance and hands-off supervision, and that calorie counting probably seems like a small, harmless way to make a difference. But I'm guessing, especially in this population, the negative effects will outweigh the poisitives - and it's a trigger that can easily be avoided. And, at the end of the day, at least in my experience, anyone who loves food is going to do everything she can to avoid eating cafeteria food anyway - and that's something they should be able to fix.

Rethinking The Freshman 15 [Newsweek]

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DISCUSSION

This may be a topic for another thread, but Sadie included it in her mini-rant, so here goes: I take issue with the idea that "food is a pleasure, and we need to treat it as such." Food can be pleasurable, sure, but it is also very functional—just something we need to survive. (For a reminder of that fact, see the recent SJ with the impoverished woman in Pakistan.) Maybe posting calories in a dining hall could help raise awareness of the sheer wastefulness/excess of many of our favorite foods. I know that calorie counts often make me think something like, "Wow, that meal has X calories, and I really only need Y calories each day to fuel my body. Damn." Or, with more detailed nutritional info, "Dude, that meal contained NOTHING of actual value—just empty calories!" I think the information can be food for thought (pun intended), so making the data readily available seems like a good idea.

But then again I've never suffered from an ED, so I can't speak to the unintended consequences among that population.