Last fall, Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) found itself with a nutrition information controversy on its hands. Except the controversy wasn't about too little information but too much.
HUDS had been posting nutrition data about its various dining hall offerings in the servery, where the dishes were being served. In fact, it was one of the first college dining services to do so.
However, some parents and counselors who work with students with eating disorders began expressing concerns that the ready availability of information may put undue stress on some young people coping with the syndrome as they made their dining choices.
HUDS acceded to the concerns last fall, removing the information from the serveries, but retaining it online and at its information kiosks. But that led to complaints that the information was inconvenient to access.
So last month, the department again made the information available in its dining halls, but on handouts instead of being prominently displayed at the stations. It also redesigned its website to make the information quicker and easier to access.
“It was a matter of how to manage the issue without compromising the need to provide nutritional information for those who want it,” says HUDS Director Ted Mayer. “We hope that since there was input from both sides, this would be an agreeable compromise. It's there at the checker's desk but it's not staring you in the face.”
What HUDS faced was a small taste of perhaps a growing concern: that the recent cultural emphasis on nutrition may have unintended consequences. The issue has relevance not only in colleges, where eating disorders may be a bigger concern than obesity and the (now largely discredited) “Freshman 15” phenomenon, but also in K-12.
A recent New York Times analysis, “What's Eating Our Kids?” fingered food-obsessed parents and overzealous teachers who can make some children afraid to eat anything.
“Kids are not able to digest all this information, and they really shouldn't have to,” says Katie Wilson, nutrition services director for the Onalaska (WI) School District and current president of the School Nutrition Association. Wilson says the wellness message should be distilled to its essence in age-appropriate ways. That message? Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, watch your portion sizes and get plenty of exercise.