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For students with eating disorders and others susceptible to eating struggles, the screens in UNC dining halls, which display caloric information on all foods, are a "huge trigger," UNC junior Gabriela Giulumian said.

In an effort to advocate for students facing these struggles, Giulumian created a petition two months ago pushing Carolina Dining Services to remove calorie labels from the displays in dining halls. The petition had 139 signatures as of Sunday evening.

The typical onset for eating disorders ranges from ages 18-21, which is also the age range for most undergraduate students, Anna Bardone-Cone, UNC professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, said. 

Ina 2022 study about college students, around 25 percent of participants struggled with disordered eating and around 3 percent had diagnosed eating disorders, UNC clinical psychology doctoral student Lauren Wash said. 

Eating disorders, the second deadliest of all mental illnesses, are at their peak during college years, Bardone-Cone said.

“College students are in this sort of unique environment where they're surrounded by their peers," she said. "For the first time, they're away from home, for a lot of them. They're reestablishing their relationship with food."

Although not all eating disorders are the same, they all involve a “complex relationship with food,” Wash said. 

Bardone-Cone also cited a 2017 National Institutes of Health study that showed that calorie labels led to significantly less caloric intake for those with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, and significantly higher caloric intake for those with binge eating disorder.

UNC Media Relations said in an email statement that “U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations require restaurants and other food establishments that serve restaurant type food to post calories on menus and menu signage.“ 

Giulumian said that other schools, such as Northwestern, already have removed calorie counts from food labels. She said there is "no law or mandate that necessitates physical calorie labeling in Carolina — or in dining areas of universities in general."

Media Relations also said that the goal of the dining hall screens is to “reduce obesity and improve the health outcomes of Americans by providing consumers with information to guide their choices.”

In response to the concept of reducing obesity, Giulumian said that although obesity is a public health crisis in the United States, measures that address the issue should not simultaneously exacerbate eating disorders and other food-related illnesses.  

Wash said the display of calorie labels on their own won’t lead to an eating disorder, but it can further perpetuate symptoms of some eating disorders — including calorie restriction, low body weight and overexercising.

Emily Dolegowski, a UNC alumna and current graduate student studying mental health counseling at N.C. State, has worked in multiple eating disorder recovery centers. She said she has seen “firsthand how calorie labels can negatively impact the recovery process.” 

“In higher levels of care, they are usually entirely marked out and inaccessible to clients because of how distressing this information can be,” Dolegowski said in an email. 

Dolegowski said that she thinks it’s still important for dining halls to share nutritional information, just not calorie labels directly. 

“Currently, this information is easily accessible on the dining hall's website, and that should absolutely remain. What [Giulumian] is proposing just creates a line of defense,” she said.

Giulumian said Carolina Dining Services has a duty to its students to remove calorie labels. She suggested alternatives such as QR codes that students could scan for nutritional information or handheld menus.

“I would love to see UNC come up with an alternative," Bardone-Cone said.

Giulumian said she has already given the request to remove calorie labels from screens to Carolina Dining Services once but was unsuccessful. Although, she said Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz was receptive to the idea in fall 2022. Since then, she said she has continued to do research on the legality of the issue and continues to work for the removal of the information.

“This proposal has potential to make a big impact on [students] in a very positive way,” she said.

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this article did not include the entirety of a statement from UNC Media Relations. This issue has since been fixed. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.

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