Nutrition of Campus Dining: An Increasing Matter of Worry

Editor’s note: This post is also available as a static resource page that can be found here.

by Jordan Davis

The Current State of Campus Dining, the Role of Nutrition, & the Concerns that Have Arisen

Nearly everyone knows about the infamous “freshman 15,” but there’s so much more than this assumed gain in poundage to the eating process which occurs on college campuses across America. The main concern for the staff members of these institutions’ dining programs is to prepare thousands of meals each day, enough to satisfy the desires of the often calorie-overloading, carb-divulging teens. But an additional concern looms large, despite often being overlooked by many. Not only must the chefs satisfy the taste concerns of students, but also they hold the important responsibility of doing so in a nutritious, thoughtful manner; a task that is not always so easy, nor has it always been taken into account.

The college years are ones in which lifetime eating habits can be, and generally are, formed. Unfortunately, away from home for the first time for many, students often see this transitional period as a time to divulge in unhealthy feasts featuring pizza, pastas, and all sorts of desserts. The change in lifestyle, including  increased stress levels and new social surroundings, can lead students down a scary slippery slope of decreasing focus on nutritious eating. Students may be looking to (sub)consciously revolt, in a way, against the traditional eating habits that parents forced upon them for all the previous years. “No dessert until after you finish your veggies,” moms will often say.

However, truth be told, the dining room isn’t always the most major of issues in student nutrition as other culprits are in play to plague students’ health. Away from the university-controlled food service, students take down a variety of highly fatty, cholesterol-full foods, especially late at night, from a variety of college-town establishments. But it’s not just eating out. Dorm rooms are littered with all sorts of candy, chips and other highly sugared foods, not to mention an abundance of soda and unhealthy drinks. According to a study of college students, the average number of calories found in the food contents of students’ dorm rooms was a whopping 22,888 (Nelson, Story) . All of this together leads to the worries of students, parents, and administrators alike about the health aspect of campus dining.

The “all-you-can-eat” style featured in college dining halls across the country has posed a health concern to students, health officials, parents, and university administrators. Retrieved from: www.greatist.com

Further reading with notable quotations:

Assessment of the dining environment on and near the campuses of fifteen post-secondary institutions

“Based on this evaluation in fifteen institutions, the full campus dining environment provides limited support for healthy eating and obesity prevention. The quality of campus dining environments can be improved via healthful offerings, providing nutrition information and other supports to facilitate healthy eating and prevent unwanted weight gain.”

Changes in eating and physical activity behaviors across seven semesters of college: living on or off campus matters

“The transition from adolescence to adulthood is an important period for establishing behavioral patterns that affect long-term health and chronic disease risk.”

Family meal traditions. Comparing reported childhood food habits to current food habits among university students

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Universities Work to Improve the Matter

There are a variety of ways that university dining managements across the country are working to improve the nutritional aspect of eating on campus. Along with providing healthier options including items with whole grains and other vital nutrients, and a suitable availability of vegetarian and gluten-free friendly options, many dining programs are working in conjunction with campus health authorities to provide educational and help programs to students in need. One system that has seen increasing popularity and effectiveness is to, in a sense, advertise the nutrition of each available item in dining halls to, hopefully, supply students with increased awareness and knowledge about the foods.

Furthermore, the arrangement of different stations within the facilities can play a large role in student selection. If a student has to past the fruit selection on the way towards the exit, as opposed to a dessert stand, he or she is far more likely to select the healthier option, rather than walk back to the dessert choices. The initiative of tray-less dining and use of smaller plates has also helped students with portion control in the all-you-can-eat dining venues.

Even the corporate institutional food serving titans, like Sodexo, have put fourth an increased focus on the nutrition of campus food service. Retrieved from: www.nau.edu.

Further reading with notable quotations:

Using student opinion and design inputs to develop an informed university foodservice menu

“Universities represent an important setting for promoting health where the foodscape can facilitate and support healthful behavior. However, there is cause for concern over the dietary and nutrition practices of university students. High percentages of this population have been found to be overweight and engaged in less than healthy dietary habits.”

Using Nutrition Labeling as a Potential Tool for Changing Eating Habits of University Dining Hall Patrons

“Consumption of large amounts of fast foods and alcohol, frequently skipping meals, snacking on high-calorie foods, avoiding certain nutrient-dense foods, and adopting unsound weight-loss techniques have been identified as possible causes of poor dietary practices among university students.”

Why Do We Eat the Way We Do?

“For instance, if you serve pasta on a 10-inch plate, you might serve three ounces, and it’ll kind of fill it up. If you put that on a 12-inch plate, it looks tiny, so you’ll serve yourself way more. But in either case, if you’re asked afterwards whether you’re full, you’ll think, “I just ate a full plate of food, so yes.””

Point-of-Selection Nutrition Information Influences Choice of Portion Size in an All-You-Can-Eat University Dining Hall.

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Students Combating Nutritional Fears (Or Not…)

Although many academic institutions have put the onus on their own shoulders, inevitably the students themselves hold the responsibility of making their own eating decisions, and living with the consequences, at that. So the question arises: what can students do to ensure that they don’t become an example of the “freshman 15.” The answer: a lot. A general rule of thumb is that deciding selecting leads less eating.

Taking a stroll around the dining hall to see all the available options, instead of taking as you go, can result in a lot less food on the plate, and this, in the stomach. Also, if the venue works in the all-you-can-eat style, only use one plate. According to nutritionists, this can cut consumption down by nearly 50%! Lastly, students should remember that, more than likely, they didn’t eat dessert every night at home. Dessert is a major culprit of added poundage in the first year of college. Establishing a rule of when dessert is and isn’t acceptable can be quite helpful in nutritious food selection.

Many students, unfortunately however, do not realize the importance of making nutritional choices where available and end up in an unfortunate situation. The results can have an impact on more than waist size, too. Unhealthy eating can resulting in poor academic performance, a diminishing social desire, a decline in energy levels, and an even higher stress level as students may become more self-concious.

Variables such as plate size and color subconsciously play a crucial role in determining how much a student will eat in a given meal. Retrieved from www.bonappetit.com

Further reading with notable quotations:

Male and Female College Students’ Perspective on Nutrition Fact Labels

“Of the 43 students who did not read labels, most responded that it was due to “laziness/lack of interest.” It is evident that college males and females focus on different aspects of the nutrition fact labels.”

Food Environments in University Dorms: 20,000 Calories per Dorm Room and Counting

“The foods observed in college students’ living spaces may have an important impact on eating habits. Overall, young adult–oriented obesity prevention efforts are needed, and improving the various facets of campus food environments may mark an important component of such strategies.”

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The Local Perspective: Cornell’s Role

The local perspective on this matter is certainly important. Cornell University’s dining program is a critical function of the institution, preparing meals every single day for thousands of students and employees. The most intriguing part about Cornell is that the school actually employees thirteen chefs, making it “culinary-driven,” unlike other institutions that have major industrial corporate titans run the food service, employing maybe one or two chefs. The management at Cornell has worked hard to put a magnifying glass on the nutrition of its food and eating practices of its students. They are working to provide healthier options including more whole grained products and a variety of gluten-free options. Furthermore, they have instituted several education programs regarding nutrition and have established services, both through their on staff nutritionist and through Gannett Health Services, to assist students who are struggling with their eating.

Cornell University, located here in Tompkins County, NY, has placed an increasingly important focus on the nutrition aspect of the food served on a daily basis. The dining management has worked to raise awareness about the content of the food and educate students on ways to avoid eating in an unhealthy manner. Retrieved from camps.cornell.edu

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Useful tools:

USDA’s My Plate

Sodexo Nutritional Calculator

Cornell University’s Gannett Healthy Eating Program

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How does your university or local academic institution fit into the bigger picture?

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References:

De Backer, C. (2013). Family meal traditions. Comparing reported childhood food habits to current food habits among university students. Appetite, 69, 64-70. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666313002043

Driskell, J., Schake, M., & Detter, H. (2008). Using Nutrition Labeling as a Potential Tool for Changing Eating Habits of University Dining Hall Patrons. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 108(12), 2071-2076. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000282230801729X#?np=y

Dutia, R. (2003). Healthy Dining Team: An Innovative Approach To Improving The Nutrition Habits Of College Students. Journal of the American Dietetic Association103, 99-100. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002822308701597#

Feldman, C., Harwell, H., & Brusca, J. (2013). Using student opinion and design inputs to develop an informed university foodservice menu. APPETITE, 69, 80-88. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23707359

Freedman, M. (2011). Point-of-Selection Nutrition Information Influences Choice of Portion Size in an All-You-Can-Eat University Dining Hall. Journal of Foodservice Business Research, 14(1), 86-98. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=3&sid=cb94ffc2-8cf2-4cf1-86a8-886e370de54e%40sessionmgr115&hid=103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=58528217

Horacek, T., Erdman, M., Byrd-Bredbenner, C., & Carey, G. (2013). Assessment of the dining environment on and near the campuses of fifteen post-secondary institutions.. Public Health Nutrition16(7), 1186-1196. Retrieved November 10, 2013, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23174458

Lam, F. (2013, January 31). Why Do We Eat the Way We Do? Brian Wansink, Food Psychologist, Has Answers for Francis Lam – Bon Appétit. Retrieved November 3, 2013, from    http://www.bonappetit.com/people/article/why-do-we-eat-the-way-we-do-brian-wansink-food-psychologist-has-answers-for-francis-lam

Mackesy, C., Bennett, L., Dissen, A., Kim, M., Kardan, N., & Policastro, P. (2008). Male And Female College Students’ Perspective On Nutrition Fact Labels. Journal of the American Dietetic Association108(9), A100-A100. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000282230801122X

Nelson, Melissa C., Story, Mary. (2008) Food Environments in University Dorms:          20,000 Calories per Dorm Room and Counting. American Journal of Preventative            Medicine, 36(1), 523-526. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749379709001251

Small, M. (2013). Changes in eating and physical activity behaviors across seven semesters of college: living on or off campus matters. JOURNAL OF NUTRITION EDUCATION AND BEHAVIOR, 40(4), 435-441. Retrieved from http://heb.sagepub.com/content/40/4/435.full.pdf+html

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