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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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You are what you eat

University of Wisconsin junior Brian Isenstein eats out and orders in regularly. Like many other college students, when he does prepare his own meals, he depends largely on foods that are cheap and easy to make.

“I eat at Ian’s and Potbelly’s for a third of my meals, and that can’t be too healthy,” Isenstein said. “But it’s just a lot easier. I don’t always have the time or skills to cook.”

Yet despite Isenstein’s tendency to frequently indulge in downtown cuisine, he said exercise is not necessarily his top priority.

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“I walk up [Bascom] Hill twice a day and that’s about it. And that’s as long as the bus isn’t going by,” Isenstein said.

And Isenstein is not alone. According to a 2001 Tufts University Longitudinal Health Study, 66 percent of college freshmen don’t eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and 60 percent eat too much saturated fat. The study, the first of its kind, also showed that eating habits formed during the college years can potentially accelerate the onset of diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

UW lecturer Pete Anderson teaches Nutritional Sciences 132, “Nutrition Today.” He said American college students may have unhealthy eating habits because fast food, convenience foods, haphazard schedules and busy lives all make it difficult to maintain a healthy diet. He said foods like pizza, hamburgers and microwavable entrees appeal to students largely because of the convenience factor.

“People are busy, and food is a fairly low priority,” Anderson said. “College-age people are young enough not to have experienced the negative consequences too fully yet.”

UW junior Laura Nelson agrees. She said a desire for food that is fast combined with a lack of grocery stores near campus prompts university students to eat easy-to-make pre-packaged foods or go out to eat.

“I think college students just eat whatever is fastest,” Nelson said. “It’s easier to throw in Easy Mac than to actually make something. I think for most people, it’s pizza or chicken patties most of the time.”

Nelson also said she craves unhealthy food when she’s really hungry, and high-fat food is often the most easily accessible on campus. She also said the late nights and long hours that are a key part of the college experience may cause many students to eat more.

“The hours we keep are so strange that a lot of the time we need more than three meals a day. We’re up so late that by 10 p.m., I need another meal, and a lot of the time pizza just sounds really good,” Nelson said.

Isenstein agrees, noting he often eats out in the wee hours of the morning.

“I think there’s a lot of late-night eating, especially on the weekends,” Isenstein said. “I think it’s a lot of eating out and ordering in.”

The new rise in unhealthy eating

While most students admittedly don’t eat as well as they should, there is new evidence that the poor eating habits of college students may be a reflection of American society as a whole.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that in the year 2000, unhealthy eating and inactive lifestyles caused 400,000 deaths in the United States. This is a 33-percent increase since the last report was issued in 1990, and experts say America’s unhealthy lifestyle may soon overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death.

Anderson said the results of the study are not really surprising because obesity, which plays a large role in causes of death such as heart disease, cancer, strokes and diabetes, is now so commonplace in the United States.

“Calorie intakes are up, while exercise is down. It’s simple math,” Anderson said.

Yet while unhealthy eating may have long-term consequences, many college students have a tendency to see weight gain as the only effect of poor nutrition.

“Very often I’ll hear people say, ‘Oh, if I eat pizza, I’ll just go to the gym tomorrow,’ and they don’t even think about the nutrition value and other health aspects,” Nelson said.

Breaking old habits

UW Professor of Nutritional Sciences Susan Nitzke said while it is difficult to make a blanket statement about the eating habits of college students or any other group of individuals, there are generally three types of eaters: the conscientious planner, the sporadic muncher and the grazer. She said the conscientious planner is someone who makes sure to plan out all of his meals and who meets most of the recommendations of the food pyramid. The sporadic muncher is someone who will have healthy meals when she can work them in, but when bogged down with exams or other activities, will make do with what she can find. The grazer is someone who pays little attention to his meals and eats whatever is available from the nearest vending machine.

Nitzke said students can easily find out which category they fall into.

“One of the things I often recommend is that students write down everything they eat and drink for three days,” Nitzke said, adding that one of the three days should be a weekend day.

Nitzke said after the three days, students can look at what they have written down to get a better sense of their actual eating patterns. She said students should ask themselves two questions when looking at the list: Is this how I want to be eating? If not, are there some small changes I could make?

For students who are not eating as they would like, the situation can be easily remedied, according to Nitzke. She recommends starting by making little changes, such as finding a way to eat more fruits and vegetables.

“I wouldn’t recommend trying to fix everything at once,” Nitzke said. “You’ll feel better about small successes and be motivated to keep going.”

UW Professor of Nutritional Sciences Dale Schoeller agrees, and he emphasized that decreasing portion sizes is also a good place for students to start.

“Students, as well as most U.S. citizens, need to make an effort to decrease portion size and the frequency and volume of snacks and drinks,” Schoeller said. “Good nutrition doesn’t mean denying yourself food that you like, but it does mean controlling the volume and amount.”

Anderson also noted that students sometimes simply have to make the best choice given what’s available.

“Stock healthy, quick foods at home — frozen and canned vegetables, whole grain bread, whole grain cereals, fruit. Maybe some healthy frozen entrees for when you’re really pressed for time,” Anderson said.

Many UW students already practice good eating and exercise habits, and these students say they abide by many of the suggestions Nitzke, Schoeller and Anderson offer.

UW junior Jessica Heinz works out at least five times a week, tries to limit eating out to the weekends and is conscientious of nutrition information when selecting her groceries.

“I always try to keep some fresh fruit and vegetables in my apartment, and to make sure that I balance my diet,” Heinz said.

Becoming an informed consumer

An additional aspect to nutrition that many students often overlook is education and awareness. While making changes to old eating habits may seem easy, many students find it is not.

UW offers several very-basic food science and nutrition classes that are open to most students.

Heinz took Food Science 120 in the spring of 2003, and she said it was a good way to learn about basic nutrition information. She said the course covered such topics as reading ingredient labels and nutrition information on groceries, serving sizes, organic foods, how different foods are made and processed and the various aspects of eating disorders.

“Learning about these things made me more conscious of what I was taking in and what it did to my body,” Heinz said.

Heinz said the class offered practical information that has made her think more critically about what food she purchases and has prompted her to make simple changes to her diet, such as drinking more water and more milk.

For students living in residence halls, University Housing food service also tries to set up an educational table about once a month to provide students with information about campus nutrition.

Brian Burke, food service manager for University Housing, said the dining halls and carryout centers also provide students with an “extensive” salad bar, low-fat and vegetarian entrees and a variety of whole fruits. In addition, the nutrition facts for each entr?e are posted in the dining hall lines and can also be found on the University Housing website.

And although Burke admits that the carryout centers primarily offer food high in fat, such as pizza and nachos, he said there are ways to order this food that make it healthier. He also said since University Housing does not require residents to have a meal plan, they can pick and choose what they would like to eat and make healthy food choices.

“We try to do educational events occasionally, but in reality we have very little control over what people eat,” Burke said.

Schoeller echoed that sentiment, saying students must regulate their own eating habits and learn to make healthy choices.

“Students can take control of their eating habits without a serious increase in time or money,” Schoeller said

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