NOVAK: University Dining isn’t healthy enough

The late-night options in particular are far from healthy

The “first-year 15” is the phrase perhaps second only to “finals week” in the measure of fear struck into the hearts of University students. It’s doubtless that if you haven’t experienced it yourself, you at least know someone who has, to some extent, packed on a few extra pounds here and there in their first couple of months at the University. Research shows the average weight gain in the first year of college is actually slightly more modest. Nevertheless, the majority of students gain some degree of weight in their first year. The mere mention of the phenomenon sends first years running to the Aquatics and Fitness Center, and rouses stress induced (or wistfully reminiscent) flashbacks of unlimited dining hall swipes in the minds of upperclassmen — complete with a dietitian's nightmare of ice cream machines and pizza and arrays of sinfully tasty treats. To its credit, the University does an excellent job of providing healthy choices in the dining halls, with a selection of fruits and vegetables widely available. Unfortunately, however, the dining halls have relatively limited hours of availability, and the current late-night food options are markedly lacking in nutritious and healthy alternatives.

For the most part, first-years have the resources necessary to combat the dreaded “first-year 15.” The recreation facilities all have flexible hours and a good variety of equipment to help students stay active. As mentioned above, the dining halls are also relatively well-stocked with a selection of vegetables and fruits, and they make an effort to at least give students the option to eat healthy. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the after-hours eating options for first-years.

Most days, by the time the clock strikes 9 p.m., all the dining halls across grounds are officially closed for the evening, leaving students with very limited options for on-Grounds food. Two of the premier locations to get food after this time, especially among first-year students, are Crossroads and The Castle. On any given night, it is almost a given to see a winding line of students waiting to use a meal exchange after having put off eating in favor of studying, participating in an extracurricular, or something else. Unfortunately, more often than not, the food they are waiting in line to swipe for is packed with sodium, fats, sugars and cholesterol.

Currently, students can pick from a limited number of menu items at four different restaurants, including Sbarro, Burrito Theory, Claymore’s and Grilleworks. Among the menu items designated for meal swipes (and therefore included in the prepaid meal plans), the average calories per meal is around 500 (not including sides such as chips, fries, fruit or drinks). A look at the menus of Grilleworks and Sbarro (the only menus available online) shows the options available for meal swipes are saturated with excessive levels of sodium, fat, sugar and cholesterol. Many of the options singlehandedly exceed half of the FDA recommended daily values of these substances. Even one of the the healthiest options to be found, the Malibu veggie burger, exceeds a third of the daily recommended intake of sodium.

One look at the menus of these restaurants shows that in order to fully address the dismal nutritional options for after hours food, the University would likely have to expand or change the choices of restaurants available to students. Outside this difficult choice, however, there remains opportunities to improve dietary options for night owls and late-night snackers without major institutional changes. Already, some meal swipe meals include fruit as an option on the side. A relatively easy option would be to expand that option to all meal swipes. Another possibility would be to offer unsweetened fruit juice alongside soda in the fountain drink machines. For the longer term, the University might consider offering a late-night salad bar or restaurant. Ultimately, any policy change would be a welcome reminder to the student body that University Dining truly is committed to offering healthy, nutritious options to students at all times of the day.

It has been shown that the demographic most at risk for weight gain during college are those living on campus with restricted dining options. At the University, nearly the entire first year class falls into that categorization. All first-years are on meal plans, and few have the resources to buy and prepare their own food in dorms. As a result, first-years are especially reliant on University Dining to provide them with the resources to establish and maintain healthy dietary habits. For lower-income students especially, the onus falls on the University to provide nutritious options within the mandatory prepaid meal plans. The University should take specific measures to ensure that students wishing to lead a healthy lifestyle are not let down, regardless of the time of day.

Brendan Novak is a Viewpoint writer.

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