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The Dangers of Calorie Counts in College Dining Halls

College Dining Halls

My small liberal arts college claimed to be, "helping students make informed eating decisions" by posting nutrition information for each food item in our dining hall. Their claim was probably true, in part: students could see how much protein or fiber was in each food, ideally helping them put together a balanced, healthy meal.

In theory, the idea was harmless. But in practice, it was anything but.

One day I was standing in line, waiting impatiently for the gluten-free sweet potato pizza with caramelized onions at the front of a very long line when I heard two girls debating the dinner options.

"Did you happen to see how many calories are in one piece of that Chicken Alfredo pizza?"

"Yeah, more than 600 in one piece. Are you kidding me? Who eats like that?"

"What are you even going to have?"

"I don't know. There's a minestrone soup over there that only has a hundred."

"It's, like, impossible to get decent food around here. I guess I'll have a bowl of cereal."

I winced. Dinnertime had turned into a vicious numbers game. I doubt the administration realized the backfire effect that the nutrition labels would have. Now instead of moderating the amount of fatty foods they ate and opting for more nutritious options, students were skimping on meals altogether.

Our college was already ultra-competitive academically, and the nutrition labels gave students a new way to one-up each other: Who could eat the least number of calories at each meal? How few calories could you eat and feel full? Students eyed each other's plates with judgment when someone did choose that slice of Chicken Alfredo pizza. They were armed with information, and it was becoming dangerous.

I'm not sure what should be done to remedy the situation. The obvious solution would be to remove the nutrition facts from the dining halls. But would it really be better to keep students in the dark, not knowing that one type of pizza is substantially healthier than another?

Maybe instead of removing the labels altogether we need colleges to provide more complete information on what a truly nutritious meal consists of. I think college campuses across the country should require students to attend mandatory nutrition seminars. Colleges impose mandatory classes for other potentially harmful things: alcohol consumption, safe sex, study drugs–you name it, they have it.

I think it's high time that colleges make nutrition education a priority and gave students the information they need to make healthy eating choices. Calories are units of energy, not something to be feared. Students need more holistic nutrition information so they don't select their meals based merely on a calorie count.