The campus calorie conundrum

Like most campuses across the country, USF offers students an easy way to get fast food without having to leave campus. There are Burger King, Subway, Starbucks and Chick-fil-A restaurants on campus; now there’s talk of adding a Taco Bell.

USF’s Note-a-Bull News for the week of June 25 asked students to vote on whether the new Marshall Center should receive a Taco Bell or a Moe’s Southwest Grill. Either choice would mean the addition of yet another corporate fast food giant (Moe’s is owned by Focus Brands, a conglomerate that also owns restaurants such as Cinnabon, Carvel Ice Cream and Schlotsky’s Deli).

Discussions of the link between fast food and obesity have been featured in the film Supersize Me exploring the link between America’s increasing turn toward a fast food lifestyle and the obesity epidemic hitting Americans of all ages, including college students.

That trend is not skipping over Florida. According to Gov. Charlie Crist’s Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic, obesity increased 98 percent between 1986 and 2002 in Florida. So in a state with mounting obesity and weight-related illnesses, should USF be more responsible concerning the food it chooses to serve on campus? “I think it would be beneficial if we could see the expansion of some of our more nutritious options,” said Kimberly May, registered Dietician with Student Health Service’s Health Promotion program.

Part of her job is meeting with students for one-on-one nutrition counseling. According to May, some of the most common reasons students come in are weight loss, high blood pressure and high cholesterol – all of which can be attributed to a diet filled with fast food.

According to the Center for Disease Control, from the 1970s to 2004, obesity prevalence increased from 5 percent to 17.4 percent for 12-19 year olds.

Perhaps it’s because of this increase that the demand for nutrition education is high. “A lot of students take advantage of the nutritional counseling,” May said. “There is a long wait in the fall and spring.” The demand is so high, in fact, that the Health Promotion program is requiring those seeking an appointment for nutrition counseling to first take a free, hour-long class titled Eat Smart, Live Smart, offered three times a month, before meeting with May.

Most nutritional information suggests Americans consume no more than 2,000 calories per day. But it may be unrealistic to keep to a 2,000-calorie diet while eating most meals on campus. If a student were to eat two out of three of his or her meals on campus, he or she might have a hard time keeping to that limit.

For example, a blueberry muffin from Einstein Bagels for breakfast has 540 calories and 22 grams of fat. Lunch at Burger King consisting of a Whopper, medium French fries and medium soda contains 1,230 calories and 59 grams of fat. If a student chooses to cool down later in the day with a frosty drink from Starbucks, say a Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino Blended Coffee with whipped cream, add 370 calories and 14 grams of fat.

The total for those two meals and coffee is 2,140 calories and 95 grams of fat, before dinner. It’s more than just a problem for students’ waistlines; obesity is linked with many other health problems.

Studies show that avoiding obesity during college years is crucial in order to avoid some of those related illnesses. Harvard Medical School researchers released a study in 2002 suggesting that obese college-aged women are twice as likely to develop ovarian cancer. The study followed and recorded data on more than 100,000 women from 1976 to 1996. According to the study Obesity, Weight Gain, and Ovarian Cancer: “Higher BMI in young adulthood was associated with an increased risk of premenopausal ovarian cancer. If confirmed, these findings suggest an additional reason for avoiding adolescent obesity.”

May also stressed the importance of getting on the right track early for college students.

“It’s very important to establish healthy habits now because it gives you the short-term returns of increasing your energy level, avoiding fatigue, sleeping well and having good mental health,” she said.

May urges students to choose wisely among the foods available at USF. Some of the items that are higher in calories and fat are pizza, pasta dishes, burgers and milk shakes.

“There are a variety of choices, some are a lot higher in nutritional value, and there are some choices that are high in calories, fat, sugar, etc.,” May said. “Students have access to many options – it’s all about what they choose. The healthier items include some of the subs at Subway, fruit, vegetables, soy milk and 100 percent fruit juices.”

May teaches students how to navigate these choices.

“I perform a nutrition assessment and 24-hour food recall, in which I ask students to walk me through a typical day of what they eat,” she said. “It would cost students $45-75 an hour to meet with a dietitian off campus.”

These services are paid for through the $75 health fee students pay each semester.In addition to nutrition counseling, USF offers various ways to stay fit through exercise. Eric Hunter, Director of Campus Recreation, works with a lot of USF students struggling with health and nutrition.

“I see a lot of students who have poor eating habits,” he said. “When we’re able to talk to them, we oftentimes refer them to Student Health Services for expert nutrition advice. I think that there should be a commitment on behalf of the providing vendors on campus to address healthy eating choices to providing healthy choices to the students who live here or go to school here.”

Even though most food at USF is fast food, Hunter said there are healthy options on campus.

“From what I’ve seen, I think there’s a good variety of food choices,” he said. “If they choose to eat the greasy hamburgers, they’re there. But even Burger King has healthy options.”

Time will tell whether or not access to nutritionists and recreational facilities can counteract the fast food on campus to result in a healthy student body.