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Access, promotion & other ways to promote healthy living in universities

Put down those muffins. Source: Shutterstock

A big part of staying healthy and fit is our diet. In university campuses, however, eating healthy can be an uphill task.

Weight gain is commonplace among first-year university students worldwide.

In the US, it has spawned the term “freshman 15,” while Australia and New Zealand call it “freshman fatties” or “fresher five”. These nicknames refer to the pounds gained by new students, which studies have linked to factors such as the spike in alcohol consumption, consumption of junk food, sudden drop in physical activity as well as increased stress leading to cravings of sugar, fat and salt.

As most students are young adults, they can be easily susceptible to the university food environment. Spending a lot of time on campus exacerbates this problem.

With obesity growing at an alarming rate, universities have a role to play, given they are the ones with the duty to educate and develop the young adults of tomorrow. Their resources and facilities can also be put to good use for programmes that foster a healthy culture.

We take a look at what universities around the world are doing to solve this problem:

1. Make healthy food more available and cheaper

A study of food outlets in six Australian campuses found that healthy food was less available and more expensive.

Writing in The Conversation, lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Auckland Dr Rajshri Roy, who is also a co-author of the study, said: “Research shows people eat what is available. So, modifying the foods available to young adults can improve their dietary behaviour.”

For example, cutting out sugary drinks from vending machines, serving self-serve tap water with every meal and decreasing portion size of unhealthy food. Making fruits, vegetables and water available in prominent places also increase the likelihood of people buying them.

Price is another crucial matter that needs to change. Lowering the price of healthy food by 10 percent and increasing unhealthy food by 10 percent have been found to make a difference, Rao notes. Incentives, like including healthier options in meal deals, also help.

2. Educate students & staff about healthy food choices

While Rao’s study found that there is demand for healthy foods on campus, they found lower consumption of healthier snacks like nuts, fruits and muesli. A lack of education could be the reason why this is so. To counter this, universities can put up the nutritional values of food to highlight which options are better for us.

Education can spur students to choose more fruits and vegetables. Source: Shutterstock

Getting nutrition academics to provide guidelines to assist university caterers, staff and students when catering university events, as seen in Victoria state, can be a way forward too.

3. Incorporate physical activities 

At Cairo University, Egypt’s flagship institution, athletics is included its student activity mission.

While the private American University in Cairo has a state-of-the-art sports complex with facilities for everything from karate to basketball to yoga, as well as 20 athletic programs and sports teams that compete against other universities throughout Egypt and internationally.

However, World University News noted only 10 percent of undergraduates use these facilities, compared to 75 percent of students in North America.

4. Work with local communities

In 2017, the University of Georgia partnered with community leaders and stakeholders to boost obesity prevention efforts in the US state counties through the Healthier Together project. At one of the county, Calhoun, the only place to buy food was a convenience store. Now, it has installed a community garden and a program to connect local farmers with communities lacking access to fresh produce.

Community gardens are a good way to get students and staff to know more about hunger, food access, sustainability and climate change. They bring health benefits too. According to researchers at the University of Utah, people who participate in community gardening have a significantly lower body mass index – as well as lower odds of being overweight or obese – than do their non-gardening neighbors.

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