Weight gain during the first year of college has become so commonplace, the term “Freshman 15” was long ago coined to describe the phenomenon. A 2015 meta-analysis of this topic found that about 60.9% of first year students gain an average of 7.5 pounds. The study’s authors suggest that weight gain in the first year of college is five times as high as the annual weight gain of the general population.
The stress of coursework, making independent – and less healthy – food choices, and participating in fewer physical activities are often cited as causes for college students’ weight gain. This statement assumes personal responsibility as the root of the issue; however, when six out of 10 people experience the same struggle, the problem appears to be fundamentally rooted in the environment and, thus, goes beyond personal choice.
To understand the intersection of personal choice and environment, consider the following scenario: a person experiences stress and starts craving sugar as part of the body’s natural response to a taxing situation. If a candy bar is the only option available, chances are that person will eat it without much thought. If both a candy bar and a bag of baby carrots are available, the person might struggle between the decision of which would satisfy the craving more versus which would be the more healthful choice. If the bag of baby carrots is the only option, then the person will likely eat the carrots.
Available options in our environment influence our behavior, so adding healthy and removing unhealthy alternatives increase the likelihood of people making better choices on a more consistent basis.
This is why universities in San Antonio are choosing to change their campus environments to support the selection of healthful foods. The University of Texas San Antonio’s Roadrunner Café joined the City of San Antonio’s healthy dining program, ¡Por Vida!, in 2012. The ¡Por Vida! program promotes menu items that fit nutritional criteria that limit calories, saturated fats, trans-fats, sodium, and added sugars.
Trinity University became the newest ¡Por Vida! partner when it launched the program across every dining location on campus just in time for the 2016 fall semester. Meals that meet the nutritional criteria are labeled at the Mabee Dining Hall, the Skyline Bistro, Provisions on Demand (grab-and-go stations around campus), Freshii, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and at mobile vendors who sell prepared meals at the Trinity Market, the campus-supported Saturday farmer’s market.
“My vision for the ¡Por Vida! partnership from the beginning was that no matter where a student goes to eat on campus, the healthy choice would be clearly labeled,” said Hayley Sayrs, outreach and development coordinator for the Trinity Market. “The fact that three of our food vendors at the Trinity Market immediately embraced the program demonstrates the foundation of support for wellness education that we have on campus.”
Berbere Ethiopian Cuisine, a food truck at the Trinity Market, recently joined the program with its signature beet salad, a refreshing side dish of steamed beets and potatoes. Cocina Heritage has been a partner of the program since 2015 and sells ¡Por Vida! approved vegan tamales, nixtamalized corn tortillas, taco fillings, and mole poblano sauce at its market booth. Umamita, a food truck that offers a blend of traditional Mexican flavors with modern twists, joined the program this summer and created cactus tortillas, avocado tacos, pork pastor tacos, and ceviche de pulpo.
“I feel a responsibility to provide healthy food to our customers,” says Hsu Wong, chef and owner of Umamita. “I’ve had my own struggles with weight and know first-hand how difficult it can be to avoid sweets and sugar when they seem to be all around us.”
Joining the ¡Por Vida! program was one of several health initiatives Trinity adopted this year: Dining halls are now serving weekly locally sourced meals; the university added Sugar, Salt, Fat by investigative journalist Michael Moss to the 2016 summer book selection; recreation centers started offering free on-campus fitness classes throughout the week; and “Taste of TUfit“, a monthly culinary class that teaches students how to prepare protein-balanced, plant-based meals was implemented on campus.
The goal for Trinity’s on-campus wellness initiatives is to promote health and a positive body image among students. By making healthy choices more accessible and promoting wellness education campus-wide, the university is doing its part in preventing chronic disease without focusing on a number on the scale.
Weight gain, obesity, and obesity-related health conditions are often blamed solely on individual health behaviors, such as food intake, eating habits, or activity level. But with two out of three Bexar County adults classified as either overweight or obese, it’s time to stop blaming individuals and start promoting initiatives that will permanently change the food and built environment to a state where “healthy” is the default, not the exception.
Rather than letting individuals face these challenges alone, we must rally as a community to create a culture of health together – We’re stronger, more effective, and healthier when we have each other’s support and encouragement por vida.
Top image: Hayley Sayrs (left) with Anna Macnak at The Trinity Market. Photo courtesy of Anna Macnak.