Experts examine MU’s nutritional impact on new students

Nutritional experts and students at MU notice that the quality of dining hall food alters the health habits of students, especially freshmen.

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Several nutritional experts at MU have noticed a change in diet when it comes to freshmen entering a university. They find that the limited accessibility to foods outside of campus dining as well as the style of serving in the dining halls typically creates a shift in eating patterns and health choices.

Catherine Peterson, Ph.D., a nutrition professor at MU with years of experience in the field of dietetics, believes that freshmen are affected most by MU’s nutrition approach.

“The habits you develop now will carry with you outside of school, good or bad habits,” Peterson said. “Freshman year is a formative time for adolescents. With buffet-style eating and seemingly limitless options, freshmen gravitate towards poorer health choices and those habits stick. The weight gain that comes with those habits generally sticks as well.”

On the other hand, Peterson finds that having a variety of foods can be a good thing. She noted that the dining halls that serve the same foods each day is not ideal in comparison to the dining halls that change it up on a daily basis.

“Serving the same foods each day violates one of the basic tenets of nutrition, which would be variety,” Peterson said.

Kristen Howard, a current MU student in the five-year dietetics program and TA for the intro to nutrition course at MU, also believes the standard freshman diet is less than ideal due to the accessibility at the dining hall.

“If you’re a student and you’re 18 and you don’t have a car, then you’re most likely going to eat at places that are walkable,” Howard said. “So freshmen are either eating at ‘all you care to eat’ style dining halls, which often leads to overeating, which then leads to weight gain. Or they’re buying food from Mizzou Market and end up making meals out of snacks.”

Freshman Kelly McGurn is an example of Howard’s impression of a typical freshman diet. When she’s not eating at the dining hall once or twice a day, she opts to buy food from the most convenient place.

“The dining hall food isn’t as appetizing to me, so I usually just end up buying snacks or frozen meals from Mizzou Market and will have that in my dorm instead,” McGurn said.

In terms of students who use the dining hall more frequently, Howard had a food plan this past semester and was able to see how students manage their diet from an inside perspective. She noticed that most of the freshmen and a lot of sophomores eat mostly pizza, burgers and sugary drinks.

Peterson finds that the food choices made by students are impacted by their conscious awareness of the wide range of food choices and endless serving opportunity.

“Given greater variety, we eat more even when we’re satiated,” Peterson said. “So even at the dining halls where it’s changed up each day, students are typically eating more because there is so much offered and you can have as many helpings as you want.”

Both Peterson and Howard noted that freshman weight gain has become a significant problem. They said the problem is significant to the point that groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the USDA have created programs designed to intervene with health habits of college students.

According to CDC’s webpage, “CDC recommends actions that school districts and schools can take to ensure students have access to key [school health services] through on-site services at schools, or off-site referrals to youth-friendly, community-based health service providers.”

As another means of finding a solution to the problem of college weight gain, Peterson advocates for the use of MU’s nutrition site called Zoutrition.

“I wish there was a better way for students to hear about the availability of Zoutrition,” Peterson said. It’s an excellent resource that can really assist students in their diet approach, especially with freshmen.”

Edited by Janae McKenzie | jmckenzie@themaneater.com

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