Multiple studies show college students gain weight through their academic career, but two area institutions are working to change that reality for their students.
Through their dining services provider ARAMARK, the University of North Georgia and Brenau University are taking part in an initiative to encourage healthier choices, particularly among sometimes finicky adults, many of whom are making their own nutritional choices for the first time in their lives.
“We just cater our foods to the needs of the students,” said Robert Caron, Brenau University’s food service director. “It’s a funny thing, because a lot of times students say, ‘We want to eat healthy,’ but their eating patterns don’t (indicate) that.”
For example, the most popular meals at Brenau include burgers and pizza; at the UNG, the stir-fry station along with pizza are top choices.
Regardless, there is a definite trend toward students demanding to know what’s in their food.
“Veganism is gaining in popularity,” Caron said. “Gluten-free diets are hugely popular. We try to cater to those (preferences) whenever we can.”
Those trends are the same at the UNG’s Dahlonega campus, where health educator Sarah Williams provides personal nutrition services for students. She said she sees many different requests along the lines of both weight loss and weight gain.
“We walk through what is healthy eating, (what is) a balanced diet,” Williams said about her meetings with students. “I’ll do exercise programming for them.”
Now through January will be Williams’ busiest time of year as she helps students avoid holiday weight gain and get a jump-start on New Year’s resolutions.
According to information released earlier this year by the American College Health Association, a survey of select colleges showed 30.3 percent of students consider themselves slightly overweight; 4.9 percent said they were very overweight.
In that same survey, 52.2 percent said they were trying to lose weight.
“It’s usually upperclassmen wanting to take advantage of our services before they graduate,” Williams said. “They’ll come and say ‘I weigh 15, 20 pounds more than I did freshman year. How do I get it off?’”
Both Brenau and the UNG have their food services provided through national provider ARAMARK, which introduced its Healthy for Life initiative in October. Extending beyond the salad bar, the initiative aims to educate students further about the nutritional content of their food.
At Brenau and UNG’s Dahlonega campus, brightly colored kiosks called wellness centers are now in the main dining halls with brochures providing information on topics such as serving sizes, trans fats and how to handle food allergies. As part of these stations, large monitors display the caloric content for that day’s offerings.
Next year, the plan is for these to be touchscreens, where students can build their own interactive meal before filling their plates.
Caloric content and other nutritional information is also displayed on a card by each food offering.
Brenau sophomore Ajaj Onuorah said she’s seen a difference in dining options just between the past two years.
“I’ve definitely noticed a lot more vegetables,” she said. “There are a lot more options with the salad. They go all out for the salad bar, and the fruits. That’s just from what I’ve seen. I feel like it’s going to keep improving.”
Onuorah usually eats from the salad bar, and does not count calories. But she’s heard students are appreciative that the information is there.
“I’m in the (Student Government Association),” she said. “That’s something we’ve heard a lot about. ... People do take into consideration the calorie count, and they like to be well-informed on what they’re putting in their body.”
At both campuses, students ultimately have the final say on what’s on the menu.
UNG’s assistant food service director, Jenny Adams, said she sees more awareness among college students about the need for a healthy lifestyle.
“I’ve been working in higher education for almost 10 years now, and it is increasing every year,” she said.
“And students (are now) coming to us and saying, ‘This is what we want.’
“There’s definitely awareness among students that they’re wanting healthier (choices),” she added.
“Right now, we offer a good variety of healthy alternatives and will continue to do that,” Caron said. “As demand dictates change, then we’ll change that.”