Imagine that you are standing in front of a huge avalanche of ice-cream. Now imagine that you are standing in front of a mountain made from spinach pie. Which sounds more appealing?
In an exploration of the eating habits of college students, both professional nutritionists as well as students believe that bad habits and myths fuel students’ unhealthy eating style. Even though most students are aware of their poor nutrition, they do little to change their eating style.
Ruth Blackburn, nutrition specialist at Residential Dining Services, said she believes students may find themselves adopting unhealthy eating practices for many different reasons.
“They may have irregular or different schedules that make eating regular meals difficult. There are often time constraints that make eating a well-balanced meal seem impossible. Lack of sleep and stress can fuel the desire for high sugar and /or high fat foods,” Blackburn said.
Kristin Fusco, founder and director of Healing Through Whole Foods, said she thinks what drives the eating habits of college students is their upbringing.
“What foods were they allowed or not allowed to have? How were the eating habits of the family?” she questioned.
Fusco added that with college comes the “freedom around choices and decisions” that fuels the problem. She explained that the “freshman 15” begins way before freshman year. “If the student did not have good eating habits or good boundaries around food before they are off on their own, then the patterns are not going to change.”
Residence hall dining staff work hard to combat this problem, Blackburn said.
“We label the food items with nutrition information to help students make smart choices,” Blackburn explained.
There is also a special program, M-Smart, which specifically caters to the problem of nutrition and college students by identifying the food items that are the healthiest in terms of good amounts of protein, not too much fat and significant amounts of vitamins and minerals.
But there is evidence that much of their efforts are in vain.
Marilyn Makomoto, a University Health Services nutritionist, acknowledged that the residence halls plan balanced meals, but explained that the problem can be found in the choices students make. “The healthy meals are there, but students make their own choices,” she said.
LSA sophomore Any Mutyala agreed with Makomoto and articulated the feelings of many students. “Even if there is healthy food, you go for whatever you want.”
In addition to the poor choices students make with regard to their nutrition, there are certain myths surrounding cultural dietary habits which also influence their eating style.
“The most persistent myth is the one that says you need to eat more protein to build muscles,” Blackburn said. Another myth that fuels bad eating habits can be found in students’ strong avoidance of “fatty” foods in favor of an overabundance of carbohydrates.
Sara Kwiecien, a Business senior and cafeteria worker, notices women especially don’t understand what foods cause weight gain, she said.
“It is obvious when a student is attempting to avoid fatty foods in the lunch line because they run every time they see any kind of fat content on the menu labels.” Kwiecien said. This bad habit leads to excess in carbohydrates, which in turn leads to weight gain.
Kwiecien also noticed odd eating habits among her peers that are aggravated or caused by drinking. “I notice skipped dinners if they are going to be drinking and consuming alcohol. Or, mass amounts of junk food late at night because they have been out partying.”
Kwiecien, who recently made a film with some classmates on this issue, observed that students rush to the gym for intense workouts in order to compensate for their eating habits.
Fortunately, there is hope for students with poor nutritional habits. Changing one’s eating style does not have to be difficult.
“In the nutrition world, there are no perfect or bad foods,” Makomoto said. “The key is eating all of these things in moderation.”
Makamoto said students should get pleasure from their food.
“We should sit down and be somewhat excited” when eating, she added.
Fusco said the first step toward improving students’ eating habits is to recognize that they have a bad habit. The next step is to “stop eating so blindly.” Fusco recommended students keep a journal to record not only the foods they consume, but also the moods they experience when they eat each food.
“This journal is the key to improving eating habits,” Fusco emphasized.
“If I could sum everything up for you, I would use Ruth’s favorite word – balance! Fast food and the like are not bad to eat, people just need to understand how to moderate certain intakes,” Kwiecien said.