The College Diet: Eat First, Think Later

Pizza, French fries, chicken nuggets, cheese steaks and burgers are dietary staples for college student, Melanie Mecha. These foods are easy, inexpensive and can be eaten on-the-go or late at night, Mecha, a St. Peter’s University criminal justice senior, said.

“In the morning, I’ll usually eat a breakfast sandwich, like a pork roll egg and cheese or sausage egg and cheese. For lunch I’ll have something light like a salad, and for dinner I usually have a heavy-unhealthy meal like a burger and fries or a cheese steak,” Mecha added.

Mecha believes that eating habits, like hers, are common among college students of all ages and can lead to damaging health effects.

A study published in the Journal of Exercise and Physiology Online suggested that the greatest increase of obesity occurs between the ages of 18 and 29, while many young adults are attending college.

The research study, which was completed in 2009 by the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, stated that approximately 35 percent of all college students are overweight or obese, with many at risk for weight gain during their college years. The study also stated that the number of overweight, obese adolescents and young adults is continuing to increase, resulting in higher percentages of young adults with diabetes and risk factors for heart disease.

Unhealthy dietary habits during a college career create a basis for future eating habits, Dr. Merrily Ervin, chemistry, medical technology and physics professor, said. “You look around and there aren’t that many overweight college students, but it’s these eating habits they are establishing that will cause them to be overweight later,” Ervin said.

Ervin teaches a food science course which requires students to complete a diet analysis project, allowing her to learn what students are eating. “I see a lot of chips, a lot of crackers,” said Ervin.

Ervin has also observed that students, particularly women, are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, which Ervin explains can cause future illnesses.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most American youths do not consume the recommended daily amounts of 2 ½ to 6 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables a day, or the minimum two to three ounces of whole grains. Instead, the study found that youths eat more than the recommended daily amount of salt, and consume a majority of their calories from added sugar and solid fats.

Ervin explained that a lack of vitamin C, which students can only get from fruits and vegetables, can cause their immune system to weaken and create a higher chance of getting sick, missing class or not being able to concentrate in class.

Along with that, if students are not eating carbohydrates or complex carbohydrates, Marta Neumann, health and physical education professor, said students will become sluggish and lack energy, also causing difficulty concentrating and completing work in school.

Megan Squires, nursing professor and certified dietitian, explained that there is a lot of misinformation and student confusion about the adequate amount of nutrients they should eat each day and how carbohydrates relate to energy and body weight.

Squires explained that carbohydrates do not make people fat. She said anything in excess of what your body needs makes you fat, this includes carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

“In terms of carbohydrates, your body and your brain need them to function,” Squires said. “In addition, carbohydrate is a source of energy for the body. It’s the type of carbohydrate that you choose that makes a difference.”

Another misconception about college students, more commonly among men, is that ‘bulking up’ on protein will create muscle,” which Squires explained is untrue. While women, in contrast, are more concerned with losing weight and slimming down, “and will typically choose foods lower in calories and fat,” said Squires.

Why Students are Eating Unhealthy

In an attempt to lose weight and slim down, students are often eating less, Neumann has noticed. She believes there is a greater problem with what students are not eating, rather then what they are eating. Neumann said most college students do not eat enough, at the right time and are not eating the right foods, which is contributing to their health.

Courtney Davis, a freshman music industry major, explained that lack of time causes her to eat less throughout the day while in college. “I’m busy some days so I never feel the need to eat, and I’m a picky eater so I don’t eat that much anyway,” Davis said.

Davis explained she often skips breakfast. When she does eat breakfast, she eats whatever is in her room, including cereal, granola bars, fruit snacks or leftovers from the dining hall, she said.

Neumann, who teaches a Healthy Strategies for Living course, began her class by asking students what they ate for breakfast. “More than half did not eat anything, it was a 10 o’clock class,” Neumann said. “They did not have a breakfast yet, and the rest of the class looks like they ate a healthy breakfast.”

Neuman said many college students are not eating breakfast, which, she believes, is a big problem. She explained that because the body is unable to process energy for the brain and body in the morning, students will lack energy which will, in turn, impact their performance in class.

One reason Ervin believes that students are not eating breakfast or keeping up with a healthy diet is due to a lack of time. “It’s a little bit more prep, not as convenient,” Ervin said. “The fast foods and chips, it’s so easy to buy a package of them and eat them. And with healthy foods, they generally do require a little preparation.”

Alysha Zimmerman, junior business major, believes students eat unhealthy because it is convenient. “I think the busy lifestyle that college students have causes them to eat unhealthy,” said Zimmerman. “It’s easier and less expensive to eat healthy, and drinking also contributes to it.

Food Services Notice Unhealthy Habits

College dining halls often take the blame for unhealthy student diets. In reaction to the dining hall stigma, the ARAMARK Corporation, the University’s food provider, created the Healthy for Life campaign in September 2013 to promote healthy eating in colleges and schools nationwide.

“[The campaign] came about through ARAMARK’s research, student feedback, trends and research from other schools,” Rachel Fisher, ARAMARK marketing intern and senior communication major, said.

The campaign’s mission is to create more knowledge about healthy eating, and the main objectives are to provide good food, nutrition information and wellness programs to benefit student’s overall health.

The University Dining Hall and ARAMARK dining halls across the nation now feature an online menu of foods served at every meal each day, a section for healthy options, nutrition facts at every meal option and tags to show students which foods are “low calorie,” “vegetarian,” “good for you,” “whole grain” or “vegan.”

Fisher said, since her freshman year, the Dining Hall has changed in many ways. “There’s more healthy options, there’s more vegetables, they don’t have butter all over them, and the options look more appealing and taste better,” Fisher said.

Kevin Yerves, ARAMARK Supervisor/Lead Cook for 22 years, said he cannot count how many changes he has seen over the years. “It’s done a complete 360 from the management level and down,” said Yerves. He explained that the menus have changed completely.

Edward Gomez, ARAMARK Food Director at the University, said that across the country, student’s interest in healthy eating sparked the idea for the new campaign.

“We have 190 campuses and it’s a huge move now, especially with some of the special dietary needs and healthy options,” Gomez said. “Whatever students ask for, or the communities ask for, we provide.”

Gomez explained that students were looking for more options other than pizza, burgers and pastas, therefore ARAMARK provided more options to meet student’s needs. “We now have more loaded salad bars, more composed salads, clean vegetables with no sauce, and options besides fried food,” said Gomez.

Also new is the Chef’s Table station, Gomez explained, full of gluten free, vegetarian and other healthy options. “That station went from doing 50 servings a day to almost 200. It almost tripled in number from the time it began,” said Gomez.

Mary Anne Nagy, Vice President of Student and Community Services, visits the university Dining Hall often and has taken notice of the changes. “I do know that ARAMARK has made a number of changes this year to help educate students on what they are consuming because I see every day that I go to the Dining Hall a card at each entrée with what the dish is and all of the nutritional content,” said Nagy.

Healthy Eating is not a Priority in College

Nagy explained that as a result to the ARAMARK Corporation’s changes in college campuses nationwide resources and finances are not the cause of unhealthy college student eating. “I think it is a combination of time and lack of information,” said Nagy. “I don’t see it as a financial issue if a student has a meal plan because of the multitude of choices you have in the Dining Hall (soup, salads, protein, fruit, veggies, etc.) and even in the Stafford Center you can eat healthy as well.” It is about what students choose as much as what they are offered or provided, Nagy continued.

Macus McKenzie, 21, a Penn State University senior communication major, said students are eating what they can just to get by. He said the process of eating unhealthy overrules healthy eating while in college.

“I believe it’s hard to not be educated on healthy eating habits,” McKenzie continued. “It’s all you see on social media. Right now I think it’s almost taboo to think otherwise because the facts are out there on what’s beneficial to your body and what isn’t.”

Fisher, who also maintains a healthy diet while in college, believes that unhealthy college student eating is due to will power. “It is your responsibility to choose, okay do I want one spoonful or two spoonfuls …It’s just your choice of what goes on your plate because when you grow up and you don’t have someone to make your food for you, it’s all up to you.”

Health Professors Advice to a Healthy Diet

Neumann said students know the difference between unhealthy and healthy, but do not follow it. Neumann suggests that all college students eat a healthy breakfast every day and adds that starting their day with oatmeal, cereal, eggs, or toast, and fruits and nuts is beneficial. Eating this breakfast, Neumann explained, stays in your system and provides energy in your body lasting energy, while creating brain power for learning.

Ervin suggests students snack throughout the day and eat more fruits and vegetables. She suggests students eat easy on-the-go fruits and vegetables two to three times a day. “I recommend a well-balanced diet focused on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low fat and fat free dairy, lean meats, fish, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds,” Squires said. She also recommends that students visit choosemyplate.gov to learn the most recent healthy eating guidelines.

To prevent unhealthy eating habits in college, Squires, Neumann and Ervin suggest that all students, in college or high school, take a nutrition course. “Everyone has to eat to stay alive and we all should have the knowledge to be able to make healthy food choices,” said Squires.

“By making healthy choices, you reduce your risk of [heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer etc.] and maintain a healthy body weight,” Squires said. “Which is one of the single most important things you can do for good health.”

PHOTO COURTESY of Angela Ciroalo