College students, let’s talk about food

In the United States alone, unhealthy eating habits account for more than 650,000 deaths per year, as a consequence of heart disease and other nutrition related illnesses. People overlook one of the most important, if not the most important, aspects of life. This inclination holds especially true with college students.

A handful of students sit in the dining hall to eat
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

Whether studying for an exam, attempting to socialize in a meaningful way, reporting to their parents, writing an essay, or reviewing presentation slides — college students are very busy. There is hardly any time left to physically sit down at the communal table and enjoy a good and healthy meal. Students will resort to the easiest, cheapest, and tastiest way to fuel up. They rely more on convenience and price when weighing their options.

Ethan Kwan, a finance major at the University of Denver, is eating a burger with fries at the dining hall on campus. He describes his typical meal:

“Honestly whatever’s good,” Kwan says. “I usually stick with stuff I know. So, like burgers or sandwiches, salads, fruits, yogurts.”

Burgers from the dining hall — a popular dish
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

For convenience, many college students will resort to fast food, such as Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, and Subway. However, these very chains have shown to be some of the unhealthiest food options one can select. All of the aforementioned national chains are even questioned about their food content: a lawsuit by a Montgomery firm asking whether Taco Bell’s meat is actual meat, a lawsuit in Atlanta against Chick-fil-A that served a woman cleaning solution instead of coffee, that infamous video of a rat crawling around in the food storage of a Subway, and numerous other cases of dead rodents served in food.

“There’s a couple places near my high school that we used to eat at, and they’re kinda ones that went under the radar,” Kwan says. “One of them had roaches, another one had like rat poop in their breads.”

Beyond the fact that students have a limited amount of time or even desire to find food, many of them lack the knowledge about nutrition and health. These students do not fully comprehend the negative medical effects of an unhealthy diet. 

Long-term effects of detrimental eating habits include an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. Preliminary issues related to heart disease begin in the early twenties.

Vegan desert option at the dining hall
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

Short-term effects of an unhealthy diet include decreased energy and focus and leads to a harmful body weight. College students who have higher body fat and body mass index levels report higher degrees of stress. Such circumstances can turn into a vicious cycle. 

Healthy eating habits go hand in hand with stress reduction. However, students who feel pressure, around finals week for example, start eating more junk food. Not only will students buy more snacks, they will also make worse choices, including skipping meals.

Kayla Arvizo studies sociology and international studies at the University of Denver. She observes that her eating habits deteriorate during finals week.

“During finals I find that I lose track of time, or I run out of time,” Arvizo says. “I prioritize things differently, so I often find myself not eating or just eating like a small snack here and there.”

The primary food source college students lack in their diet is that of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables provide many health benefits and help prevent illnesses; they contain numerous vitamins and minerals that function as antioxidants, phytoestrogens, and anti-inflammatory agents. In addition, fruits and vegetables supply dietary fiber which decreases risks of cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Baskets of fruit offered in the dining hall
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

Fortunately, fruits and vegetables are easily accessible; however, it’s a matter of desire and taste buds. According to Adrienne Soden, Executive Chef for Sodexo at the University of Denver, fresh fruits and vegetables are delivered to the campus every day. 

“We try to keep a couple varieties of apples, pears when they’re in season, plums when they’re in season,” Soden says. 

The Pioneer Plate
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

The University of Denver is fortunate to have a nutritionist on campus who helps figure out the daily menus. Additionally, a display of the “Pioneer Plate” on counters assists students in better managing their nutrition. Half of the plate consists of fruits and vegetables, and the other half is subdivided in grains and meats. According to Soden, an adult human being does not need a piece of meat bigger than the palm of their hand. 

“As Americans, our main entrée is always a meat item, and most other places in the world do not eat like that,” Soden says. “We’ve kind of gotten things upside down, where the bulk of our diets are meat and grain or starch, and it should be the other way around.”

The vegan and vegetarian station is in the middle
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

Soden’s cooks track how much food they start out with at their specific stations, and how much is left, which brings to light how much of it was sold. Chicken tenders are a best seller at the dining hall on campus. The cafeteria employees know that on days when chicken tenders are provided, they will be constantly frying.

The single reason why there are so many fast food options on and near campuses is because students want these varieties of food. This impulse starts at a young age and is specific to children in the United States; the younger populations in countries like France are accustomed to healthier diets. 

One in every three children in the United States is overweight or obese. In countries like France, on the other hand, obesity at any age is rare.

Frédérique Chevillot, a French professor at the University of Denver who grew up in France, had a predominantly healthy diet in school.

“When I was in France — some forty or fifty years ago — I never had the experience of seeing obese people or very large people for that matter,” Chevillot says. “Back in my day, we had lunches that very much resembled what we had at home, and someone was fixing everything.”

Variety of processed snacks found in a college dorm
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

“We certainly didn’t have packs of chips and pops to drink.”

To this day, most school lunches in France are based on menus that are sugar conscious and provide a balanced intake of protein, carbs, fruits, and vegetables. These menus are thought out two months in advance by cafeteria staff and a certified dietician. In addition, all the food is prepared freshly in the kitchen at the school. Most processed or pre-packaged foods, that are seen in US schools, include preservatives and additives that are toxic and contribute to obesity and other complications that are prevalent in children in the United States.

Cooked carrots served at the dining hall
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

Children across the United States are being fed unhealthy foods at a young age and are thus prone to continue eating unhealthy foods throughout college. On the contrary, French kids develop a taste for healthier foods and will most likely continue to make nutritious selections as independent adults.

Knowing that universities have their students’ best interests at heart, consistently offering healthier options will inevitably lead to the elimination of bad choices, in a simple application of the supply and demand theory. 

If students stop eating the hamburgers at the dining hall, Sodexo will eventually stop providing the patties.

Silverware in the dining hall
Photo by Lauren Zurcher

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