Eating disorders and calorie counting often go hand in hand. The desire to lose weight or stay thin often creates an intense obsession with monitoring calories. Trips to the supermarket become marathon session devoted to reading the calorie and fat counts of every item put into the shopping cart. Marcia and others who treat eating-disorder patients try to help break them of this habit and learn how to make healthy choices that will maintain a normal weight.
The problem is that this goal is at odds with those of anti-obesity crusaders, who would like to see more nutrition and calorie labeling. The hope is that if overweight consumers at a fast food restaurant, for example, see just how many calories and fat grams that cheeseburger they plan on ordering contains, they might choose something healthier. This is all well and good except for the fact that for a certain segment of the population, especially those of college age, this could be too much information and may help trigger or fuel an eating disorder.
So it was with interest that Marcia and I read that Harvard just last week reversed its 10-year-old policy of prominently posting nutrition info in its dining halls. (For a nicely done commentary on this change, take a look at Elizabeth Wade’s piece on the American Council on Science and Health’s website. Our colleague David Herzog, director of the Harris Center for Education and Advocacy in Eating Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital, advocated for this change. Marcia dealt with this very issue 10 years ago at Dartmouth College, where she headed the eating disorders prevention program. “We decided not to post calories because students struggling with eating disorders said very plainly that this information would cause them harm,” says Marcia, who is glad that Harvard is now following suit.
“Students recovering from eating disorders found that not having the calories listed helped them overcome their obsession and fear of calories,” explains Marcia. “Some students I’ve worked with are so dependent on nutrition labels and calorie counting that they buy all their food at the local supermarket instead of eating at the dining hall. The sad thing is that instead of being able to eat the fresh food made to order at the college dining hall, these students would end up eating less nutritious packaged foods. In working with students, I often have them practice eating in Dartmouth’s dining hall so they can handle joining friends for a nice dinner at an off-campus restaurant, or getting ready for the family Thanksgiving dinner,” Marcia explains. “Most restaurants (especially nice ones) don’t publish calorie counts, and of course neither do families.”
For the obsessive calorie counter who is not in college and going to a dining hall, Marcia suggests buying fewer packaged foods so you have less contact with labels. I have found that when eating is based on my Food Plan, with its focus on food groups rather than calories, before long counting calories seem irrelevant. I often have patients thrilled to find that they forgot to count calories because with the food plan calories had become irrelevant.
Both California and New York have passed laws that require chain restaurants to post calorie counts. We’re happy to see that small, locally run restaurants in both states remain free of this requirement. At college dining halls posting this information is optional. We hope that other schools take heed of college students’ high risk for eating disorders and refrain from posting calorie and fat counts in dining halls.
Marcia and Nancy