Fighting the Freshman 15 With Calorie Counts

College dining facilities are part of a national push for more nutrition awareness.

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Amber Gibson, a sophomore at Northwestern University, was recently tempted by a new dish during an Asian-themed night at the school's dining hall. But before she piled the chicken and sauce onto her plate, she noticed a placard highlighting the food's high calorie and fat content, even in a meager four ounce serving. That small card proved to be a deterrent as she settled on a healthier option that evening. "I take in what the calorie information is generally before I make a decision," she says. "It's a good idea that they have that available." 

Northwestern is one of many schools that have begun to prominently display calorie counts and other nutrition information, such as grams of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, in their dining facilities in recent years. This trend is endemic of a larger push among the American populace, and students are no exception, school officials say. "It's driven out of an increased desire for transparency," says Rachel Warner, spokesperson for the National Association of College & University Food Services (NACUFS). "Students want to be able to make informed choices about what they're putting in their bodies." 

[See colleges that offer choices for vegetarians.]

Outside of campuses, several cities and states, including New York City and California, have begun requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations nationwide to post calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. A similar national regulation, proposed by the FDA, is currently under review and could go into effect in 2012. 

Warner notes that schools like North Carolina State University and the University of Connecticut have gone as far as to label certain healthy foods with the school's mascot in an effort to draw students' attention to them in the lunch line. Low calorie items with no trans fats in N.C. State dining facilities, for instance, are labeled with the school's Wolfpack logo. 

Though health-conscious students like Gibson heed the nutrition information and try to use it to make better decisions, that's not the case for many students, some school officials say. Nori Yamashita, director of operations in campus services at the University of Denver, estimates that only about 10 percent of students at the school pay attention to the calorie counts posted on school menus. "The majority of students eat what they feel comfortable with: burgers, pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, sweet cereal, and so forth," he says. To combat this, the school recently added a vegetarian/vegan station in the dining facilities to try and provide healthier options. 

[Chow down on U.S. News's best diets.] 

While dieticians maintain that being aware of nutrition content is beneficial, putting too much stock in it can be harmful. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 10 million Americans have an eating disorder, a plurality of which are young women. Deborah Zippel, dietician at the University of South Carolina, which posts calorie counts in its dining facilities, notes that the ubiquity of nutrition information, while advantageous for most students, can be damaging to students with eating disorders. 

"There's always the concern that students are going to take the information, with all of the myths out there about carbohydrates being bad for you and fat grams being something you should completely eliminate, and are going to try and avoid any food with fat or carbohydrates," she says. 

Despite these concerns, Warner of NACUFS surmises that colleges will continue to push to make nutrition information available to their students in a variety of ways. Technology will make it easier for schools to regularly update nutrition information for the constantly rotating food options—something that Gibson, the Northwestern student, and Zippel, the South Carolina dietician, cite as a problem. 

Digital displays can make updating information easier, and some schools like Miami University in Ohio offer interactive kiosks for students who want to see just how many calories they've put on their tray. "Technology does help," Warner says. "It's certainly something that colleges and universities are looking at more and more."