What Schools Are (And Aren’t) Doing to Solve “The Freshman Fifteen”

For some, going away to college can mean no more home-cooked meals, a decrease in physical activity, a tight budget, and the on-start of an unbalanced diet. Let’s face it —turning pages at the library, sitting in the classroom and resting on your couch isn’t going to help maintain healthy eating habits and a proper exercise routine. Although some college students may have this combination down, many fall prey to the “Freshman Fifteen.” Even worse, some students maintain these lifestyles for the rest of their adult lives!

One of the greatest difficulties that comes with maintaining a healthy diet in college stems from the irregular eating habits that students fall into in order to accommodate with their busy class schedules. What students ultimately need is a balance of good nutrition and a proper diet, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Some of the obstacles that can get in the way are 2a.m. pizza deliveries, sleeping until noon, making frequent visits to the nearest donut shop and, everyone’s favorite, chugging beer. But other, less manageable circumstances can also be to blame, such as limited access to affordable health foods, stress from school, lifestyles changes, irregular eating schedules, and a lack of adequate health education.

Looking for ways to help and encourage students to make healthy decisions, I reached out to a handful of experts for some insight on the subject. Speaking with various educational nutritionists, dietitians, and dining service directors, I found out what some of today’s leading educational institutions are doing to alleviate these ongoing issues. Here’s a list of some of the best advice I received:

Launching a nutrition blog

The Internet is one of the most useful and popular tools available to students these days. Using the Internet to your advantage is important for communicating with students about the benefits of choosing your institution’s dining services versus opting for fast food. Creating a nutrition blog is key to increasing that level of awareness in your students.

“We are in the process of creating our own blog to act as an additional resource for our current students, faculty and staff. Our DHFS blog will feature nutrition related articles, content on our environmental efforts (such as recycling, composting, souring local food, etc.), details on our dining specials and events, and videos. The video portion of our blog will feature “dormable” recipe videos. These will be short, quick and easy videos showing students how to make a healthy snack or meal item in their room utilizing only a microwave or basic utensils and equipment.”

—Lindsay Gaydos Wilson, Registered Dietitian at The University of Texas at Austin

Giving students access to facts

One of the most essential aspects of creating a balanced diet is understanding what ingredients actually make the food you are eating healthy or unhealthy. Providing you students with access to the nutrition facts about what you are feeding them will break down any doubts or concerns they are having about eating “dining hall” food.

“At UChicago we work hard to give students the tools that they need to make healthy, educated decisions about what they eat. We provide extensive nutrition and ingredient information for all of our menu items. We post this information at the point of service and also make it available online.”

—Richard Mason, Executive Director of Dining at The University of Chicago

“…‘Build Your Plate’ is an easy interactive way to navigate through menu options and calculate nutritional information for items found in our dining commons. Diners have two options for viewing nutrition information: by selecting a single menu item or by assembling a meal from multiple items to calculate a “plate” of menu items.”

—Bryan Varin. Associate Director of Meal Plan Operations at The University of Georgia Food Services

Providing “Healthy Suggestions”

Class schedules are constantly changing from semester to semester and free time is usually dedicated towards studying, catching up on coursework and engaging in activities that help take the edge off the stress that comes with school. As a result, trips to the local grocery store are often pushed back if not completely overlooked. This leaves many students, in particular those living on campus, dependent on meal plans and campus dining services to fill their hunger void. Giving students the option to eat healthy while on campus is critical to helping them establish a balanced diet and getting them accustomed to incorporating that diet into their busy schedule.

“The DHFS also has a “Healthy Suggestion” program… [with] appropriate menu items that meet the criteria detailed on our website, with restrictions on total calories, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and cholesterol.”

—Lindsay Gaydos Wilson, Registered Dietitian at The University of Texas at Austin

“Making healthy options delicious and readily available is important to helping students make healthier life choices… We offer many whole grain products as alternatives to processed grains such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole grains on the salad bar, etc. Additionally, we offer many healthy snack options that are available in our markets, such as organic popcorn, fresh fruit and vegetable cups, and low fat dairy products.”

—Richard Mason, Executive Director of Dining at The University of Chicago

Removing unhealthy ingredients from the menu

A good amount of the nutritional issues in student diets originate from the unhealthy ingredients found in their daily meal options. Eliminating things like sodium, trans-fat and artificial ingredients will help lower the percentage of obesity and malnutrition in your students.

“We have also taken on an initiative to reduce sodium intake. We have removed the salt shakers from the tables within the dining halls, we are working to reduce the amount of sodium in the recipes we serve, we are purchasing canned goods that are either low-sodium or no sodium added, we are creating an educational sodium display for in the dining halls, and have created an educational sodium infographic…”

“…We have been working to make our bakery free of artificial trans-fat, and therefore have set standards to not bring in any bakery items that contain artificial trans-fat or have a natural trans-fat content of more than 0.5mg per serving. In our efforts to make our bakery artificial trans-fat free, we have been following the NYC guidelines.”

—Lindsay Gaydos Wilson, Registered Dietitian at The University of Texas at Austin

Buy Local

Buying and implementing locally grown food is a popular trend that many food service providers have employed into their dining programs. Using locally grown produce not only gives your students the healthier option but also increases support for the community. Students like to know where their food is coming from and value knowing that what they are eating hasn’t been frozen and processed before reaching their plate.

“We most commonly utilize US Foods for this service, but we also source locally throughout the Austin and surrounding Texas communities. The Division of Housing and Food Service deems ingredients as locally sourced if they are from within a 300 mile radius of the UT campus. Despite this, 95% of locally sourced products used by the DHFS are from within a 150 mile radius.”

—Lindsay Gaydos Wilson, Registered Dietitian at The University of Texas at Austin

“We are ever increasing the number and types of products we offer, both in our dining centers and grab-n-gos and our retail operations. Over the last several years, especially in our dining centers and grab-n-gos, we have steered more toward products made in house from wholesome ingredients as much as we are able.”
—Lauren Heising, Registered Dietitian & Coordinator for Sustainable Dining at The University of Colorado at Boulder

Having nutritional, exercise, and dietary information readily available to students by field experts

A big issue that many students face when struggling to create a balanced diet is the lack of adequate education needed to avoid making common mistakes. Having several registered dietitians or nutritional experts on staff will encourage students to ask questions and give them the facts they need to make the right decisions in their diet.

“The Division of Housing and Food Service offers free, personal counseling appointments with myself (a registered dietitian) to all students living and/or dining with us. Students can make appointments on a variety of topics, including weight loss, healthy weight gain, diabetes, food allergies and intolerances, special diets (vegetarian and vegan), and much more…”

“…[We] also provide educational floor programs for our residents, when requested by residence life, throughout each semester. These are typically 30 minute to one hour presentations on current trends or important topics to freshman students, including the freshman 15, how to healthfully navigate the all you care to eat dining halls, the importance of breakfast, quick and healthy snacks, etc.”

—Lindsay Gaydos Wilson, Registered Dietitian at The University of Texas at Austin

“University of Georgia Food Services employs a full time registered Dietician to provide nutrition counseling and education to our meal plan participants.”

—Bryan Varin. Associate Director of Meal Plan Operations at The University of Georgia Food Services

“[Our] students have access to meet with a Registered Dietitian to ask questions or receive nutrition counseling. We also promote healthy eating tips and education through marketing campaigns and student health fairs.”

—Richard Mason, Executive Director of Dining at The University of Chicago

Cater to all eating preferences

Living off a campus meal plan can be a burden at times, especially when the dining hall food isn’t exactly tailored to your preferences. It’s important to communicate with students and to make an effort to provide them with food that fits their dietary and personal needs while still taking a healthy approach.

“Our service model is built on variety and choice. We strive to offer something for everyone.”

—Bryan Varin. Associate Director of Meal Plan Operations at The University of Georgia Food Services

“I also hold a vegetarian focus group the first Wednesday of each month. The DHFS invites our vegetarian and vegan students to come into the dining halls and dine with us for free once a month. During this event, we welcome students to provide us with feedback on the vegetarian and vegan offerings and services we provide. “

—Lindsay Gaydos Wilson, Registered Dietitian at The University of Texas at Austin

“We have a very robust and dynamic dining program. We recognize that we have a diverse population present at our campus and our dining program is structured to reflect the needs of the various populations. We have options available for Halal, Kosher, Vegan/Vegetarian, and allergen conscious diners. We take an active role in obtaining feedback from our students in order to constantly improve our program.”

—Richard Mason, Executive Director of Dining at The University of Chicago

Let the students voice their opinions

Sometimes having healthy options available for students to purchase is not enough to satisfy their tastes. An ongoing problem many students run into while dining on campus is that they don’t enjoy the food being served to them. Reaching out to your students about what they want to see on their menu is a great way to drive them towards choosing your dining services over other desirable options.

“We allow them to voice any concerns, provide recipe ideas, and comment on what they like or dislike that we are serving to them. Students always get to sample a new vegetarian or vegan recipe we’ve been working on at each meeting and we take their feedback on these items to heart when determining if it should become a staple menu items.”

—Lindsay Gaydos Wilson, Registered Dietitian at The University of Texas at Austin

Restructuring your vending machine options

Busy class schedules, combined with a heavy load of coursework, keep students preoccupied during the day and at times can interfere with eating a fully balanced meal. Consequentially, students turn to quick and easy methods of satisfying their hunger. Vending machines provide a good amount of snacks for students to munch on in between classes but a majority of these snacks don’t have much nutritional value and can contribute to weight gain. Replacing some of these high calorie and low vitamin foods will help introduce students to alternative and healthier snacking options.

“The University of Texas Healthy Dining Workgroup, which includes myself, began a collaboration with Parking and Transportation Systems (who holds the contract to our campus vending) in 2012 to implement healthier vending machine options on campus. The pilot is testing whether we should provide 100% of the items in the vending machines as healthy or a smaller percentage, so that students can have options.”

—Lindsay Gaydos Wilson, Registered Dietitian at The University of Texas at Austin

“We have a variety of products in our vending machines to serve our student’s needs. Aramark refreshment services division provides the vending service on-campus and features the Just 4 U program in our vending machines that offers options that have 5g of fat and less than 30% of calories from fat per serving, 100 or fewer calories per serving, and 15 carbs or less per serving.”

—Richard Mason, Executive Director of Dining at The University of Chicago

Article written by Alexander Silva, Good Greens Health Blogger - Miami, Florida 

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