Up until February, a student walking into one of Northwestern University’s four dining halls would likely see a small sign beside each dish denoting its ingredients and calorie counts: 270 for a serving of baked ziti or 100 for low-fat vanilla yogurt.
But midway through the semester, the university’s dining services removed those signs, though calorie and nutritional information for food served in the dining halls can still be found online and ingredient lists are still available at the point of service.
It might be a minor—even imperceptible—adjustment to some students. But to students who struggle with certain eating disorders, such as anorexia, the impact could be substantial, according to Northwestern officials and eating disorder specialists.
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“We are trying to create a sense of home away from home,” said Stacey Lynn Brown, Northwestern’s director of dining. “I think what we’ve found is that by having those calories, for some of our students struggling with disordered eating behaviors or thoughts, that was absolutely not creating a sense of home for them. It became a situation where they couldn’t opt out of that information.”
The university spent two years debating the decision, Brown said, with campus health officials, researchers, parents and students weighing in.
Care for students with eating disorders has long been the domain of campus counseling and health services. But dining facilities are often where those disordered eating habits emerge; for some students, it’s the first time they’ve ever had complete control of what they eat and when, and the endless choice of what is often all-you-can-eat fare can be overwhelming.
“There are no wins for the dining hall environment. An overabundance of palatable food, food that tastes really good but might be high in certain ingredients—like sugar, fat, salt, which make food really tasty—tend to be foods that folks with binge-eating disorders have a really hard time managing,” said Tom Hildebrandt, an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Excellence in Eating and Weight Disorders at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “On the other side, folks who are kind of terrified by all of those same foods and look to avoid them could find the dining hall overwhelming for those reasons, but in the opposite direction.”
That’s why some are calling on dining halls to make adjustments to make them safer spaces for students with eating disorders. Northwestern students had been asking the university to remove calorie counts since at least 2017; students on other campuses, including Fordham University, have taken up the same cause. Hildebrandt noted that there is “minimal” evidence that displaying calorie counts is useful to anyone in the first place.
Still, the decision to remove them has received some pushback at Northwestern, Brown reported, both from students who want easy access to calorie information as well as some who are recovering from eating disorders.
“There is some feeling around: everyone’s at a different phase of their journey in recovery,” she said. “I think some people feel like … we shouldn’t be scared of that number.”
Students at other universities have criticized their dining programs for exacerbating eating disorders (or disordered eating, a term that refers to abnormal eating behaviors that aren’t necessarily linked to an eating disorder).
In a piece for the student newspaper of the Claremont Colleges in California, for example, one student athlete argued that by having Meatless Mondays, the dining halls were inadvertently influencing students to restrict their eating. At Tulane University in New Orleans, an op-ed in the student newspaper claimed that a lack of dining options after 8 p.m. on weekends caused some students to miss dinner—an especially dangerous move before a weekend of partying, the author said.
Rice University sought to adjust its dining services for a similar issue starting in fall of 2022. Because enrollment at the Texas university is growing, the registrar had begun scheduling classes during what had previously been designated lunchtime for most students on campus, according to David McDonald, interim associate vice president of housing and dining for Rice.
That meant that some students weren’t able to eat lunch, leading the university to introduce a new, two-hour meal period between lunch and dinner—which students have dubbed “munch.”
“If students miss breakfast for an early class or they just sleep in—that may happen sometimes with college students, allegedly—they can still have three meals a day,” McDonald said. The university’s serveries have added some grab-and-go snack and drink options as well.
The new dining schedule wasn’t intended to address eating disorders specifically. But it does partially fulfill a resolution by the Student Association that asked the university to take several steps to support students with eating disorders—including offering more food options outside of regular dining periods. It also requested more education about eating disorders and that the university’s Wellness and Counseling Center hires a counselor with specialized knowledge about eating disorders.
Sarah Bartos, one of three then senators who introduced the resolution, became interested in addressing eating on campus when she realized that Rice’s meal structure, which consisted of three dining periods, was more restrictive than those at other colleges. She thought the time constraints made mealtime a stressor and chore rather than a time to relax, socialize and eat. In fact, in a survey of 279 Rice students, she found that more than half experienced food-related anxiety in the dining hall. (This paragraph has been updated to correct the spelling of Bartos’s name.)
“Rice is a highly competitive university to get into, it’s a highly competitive university to be successful at, and I think there’s definitely a culture here where there’s no time to take a break and eat with your friends,” Bartos said. “So, giving someone another opportunity to do that was something I thought was really important.”
This is an important step in the right direction, Hildebrandt said. Consistency in eating patterns is one of the first steps someone can take to overcome an eating disorder, regardless of the disorder, he said.
“You want to help young adults at this time of life establish a regular pattern of eating,” he said. “Regular eating can certainly include a period where you eat at midafternoon as opposed to 12 o’clock as long as it’s regular and consistent.”
It’s not just students who have noted the connection between dining halls and students’ mental health, however. Campus food service providers like Sodexo have long employed dietitians who work with the students at their partner universities, including many who struggle with eating disorders. Samantha Zajac, the registered dietitian at the University of New Haven, estimated that 90 percent of her clients struggle with disordered eating behaviors. She works closely with the counseling center, which, in many cases, refers those students to her.
Some dining halls, including Rice’s, are looking to cultivate partnerships with the mental health providers on their campuses to support students with eating disorders.
“What I’d like to do in the summertime is to re-engage with Wellness and Counseling, you know, and see if they have any feedback for us,” McDonald said. “It truly does take a village.”