Any student at the University of Massachusetts is familiar with the our dining commons. At each of the four dining halls, you can find a wide variety of foods from stir fry to sandwiches and sushi to all of the amazing desserts. You go up to the counter and ask for whatever you want in the buffet line. As you go down the line getting your food, you will see each dish labeled. That label contains things like the fat content, the amount of protein, allergens, etc., but also the caloric content of a certain serving of that dish, which can be a source of dangerous and misleading information for students.
Calories are not an exact science. Calories are not just calories. Two hundred calories of a dessert is not the same as 200 calories of broccoli or pasta. What matters in each serving is the amount of protein, carbs, fat, sugar, etc. Thinking of all calories as equal is incorrect and this belief is only exacerbated by labeling all foods with their caloric value.
It is also important to note that in dining halls, the serving sizes for the caloric intakes listed may not be the serving size you are eating. Most food is served to you by a dining hall worker. How are you supposed to measure how much four ounces or half a cup is? Even if you serve the food yourself, how are you supposed to know if you are going over or under the caloric value listed? You can’t know. So why are we posting the calories? Clearly, the number isn’t very useful.
There are many harmful effects that come with labeling the calories on food. Nationally, an FDA rule was passed that required restaurants with more than 20 locations (i.e. chain restaurants) to list their food’s calories on their menus. This was done to help reduce obesity in the United States, but eating disorder organizations and activists have spoken out against the law, citing how harmful it is for people recovering from, suffering from, or at risk of developing an eating disorder. According to the Walden Center, five percent to 20 percent of college females have eating disorders, and one percent to seven percent of college males have eating disorders. This is an issue that does not affect a small number of students, considering that 91 percent of college females “have attempted to control their weight through dieting.”
This new FDA regulation was actually shown to be ineffective and did not change people’s food choices, even when calories were presented. Some experts from the Today Show suggested pushing people toward healthier options or providing incentives for people to order healthier options, such as offering a small discount, because just displaying the calories does not affect food choice when eating out.
So why is our University still putting up the calories? Some argue that schools are pushing to stop the “Freshman 15” and that providing the food information increases transparency, but I believe that UMass could be doing that in a more effective way by providing healthier options. I could write a whole other piece about how even though we have the best dining in the country, our dining halls really lack healthy, nutritious foods. Caloric information is not going to stop the “Freshman 15,” but maybe healthy options could.
One alternative to this practice could be to have a menu available so that if someone wants to know the calorie information, they can look it up, such as on the UMass Dining app. The dining commons could even have paper menus with the food information listed. This way, people who do monitor their calories can seek the amounts out, but everyone else wouldn’t have the number thrust at them. The dining commons could still post information regarding the macros of the dish-carbs, protein and fat. Ingredients should still be listed so that students can avoid allergens.
Pamela Singer wrote a piece about the calorie law and she says “…forced awareness of caloric content in pursuit of health is misguided. Not only does it suggest that thinness is the primary measure of health—which research repeatedly shows is not the case—but it impedes movement toward true health in a population at high risk.” This quote can be applied to our University. Placing emphasis on calories is not what the University should be doing.
If UMass wants to promote healthy choices, then it should not be focusing on calories. It should be focusing on the quality of the foods that students are consuming. It is about quality of calories, not quantity of calories. By listing caloric information, which is most likely incorrect for the serving(s) that students are receiving, UMass Dining is doing more harm than good. Placing emphasis on calories is not what the University should be doing. Our University, with the best dining in the nation, should be focusing on being the best in health issues as well, starting with dispelling myths about caloric intake.
Emilia Beuger is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]