Try that paleo diet all you want, but ancient hunter-gatherers didn’t have Snicker’s Bars staring them down at the cash register. Sure, they had lions to deal with…but at least they had a fighting chance. Fighting temptation is a bit harder. The most dangerous foe, however, is the one you don’t realize is there.
As a busy college student, finding the time to prepare a nutritious meal typically ranks low on the list of priorities – just above planning for retirement. Luckily, the cafeteria nestled in the heart of campus is ripe with convenient options. With a colorful spread of globally-inspired fare, Pacific Dining seems to be serving up plenty of nutritious choices. But with the pre-packaged snacks clinging to the shelves and clustered at the cash register, an impulse addition can easily spoil a healthy decision. But you already knew that.
This is what you need to watch out for: hard-to-recognize multisyllabic ingredients stuffed inside the fine print of those “healthy” packaged meals, the imperceptible glisten of vegetable oils sloughed off hot entrees, grams of addictive sugar packed to bursting inside every wrapper (yes, even those Clif Bars featuring the determined crimson-clad climber we know and love). And a cafeteria is difficult terrain to navigate when you’re unfamiliar with these nutritional landmines or limited information rests in plain sight. But if you want to live into your prime equipped with not only a capable body but a flourishing mind, this is no longer a negotiation. You need information. You deserve to know exactly what you’re putting inside your body and how it will affect you.
“I think they could have healthier options, because there are a lot of things like burgers, french fries, pizza,” says Anna Lu, a first-year Design major. Her voice is soft-spoken as she leans in across the table. “More vegetables” she adds, eyes brushing past her unwrapped Fresh & Ready Caesar, “there’s just salad.”
Unfortunately, even seemingly healthy items harbor dangerous ingredients. For instance, the Fresh & Ready Caesar Salad only clocks in at 220 calories, but the first ingredient in the dressing is “soybean and/or canola oil.” A 2017 study performed at Temple University in Philadelphia detected links between canola oil and Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
These oils are also used prolifically in kitchens. Most kitchens use oils like canola or soybean oil- inexpensive options, but incredibly processed. Furthermore, soybean oil possesses a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. According to ScienceDirect, evidence suggests humans evolved on a ratio close to 1. Today, the typical Western diet averages 16:1. Omega-6’s help promote the body’s inflammatory response (important for fighting infection), but putting the body in a constant inflammatory state can also wreak havoc on cells and fuel chronic disease. Research led by Dr. Joseph Hibbeln from the National Institutes of Health has found these upended ratios increase likelihood of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer – even psychiatric disorders.
Other items are loaded with sugar. The Fresh & Ready Strawberry Parfait packs 32 grams. Pair that with a Tropicana orange juice, and your healthy breakfast shoots up another 34 grams to a combined assault of 66 grams of sugar. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization recommends no more than 25 grams of sugar per day. In just one small meal, you’re 150% over your daily limit and it’s not even 9:00 am. On the other hand, the USDA Dietary Guidelines let you get away with 12 teaspoons, or about 48 grams of daily sugar. So if you’re playing by their rules, you’re only 30% over the line.
What’s disconcerting is that our fructose filled diets have been dishing out a multitude of problems. And its reach isn’t just skin deep…it’s DNA deep. Food can help or harm us on the molecular level. A study published by the American Journal of Public Health found links between soda and shortened telomeres. Telomeres are kind of like aglets at the end of shoelaces that keep them from unraveling into oblivion. They help protect our DNA against error each time it replicates, and they get shorter as we age. If they get too short, that’s when we start racking up errors in our genes and the resulting diseases. So, they might be of interest for you to protect.
“I know there’s a big push in Public Health to have nutritional content or calorie counts displayed. There’s also pushes in some places like New York City where they banned super-sized sodas,” says Alan Chan, a current student knocking out some prerequisites before pursuing a career as a Physician’s Assistant. He leans back in his seat, surveying the cafeteria as he unfolds his thoughts with a measured articulation. “I actually think that it’s just good to have options and more information. Sometimes you really do crave a Snicker’s Bar or whatever and it’s nice to have that option, but I think if more nutritional information is displayed – that’s one way of letting people decide for themselves.”
While the pre-packaged food items are required by law to provide that information, it runs into some gray area when it comes to kitchen prepared meals. Pacific Dining does list the calorie count next to their menu items, which is a helpful start. But Chan also noted that people with certain dietary restrictions like diabetics need to be aware of the full nutritional breakdown. Pacific Dining owner, Richard McMahon, was extremely forthcoming and quick to offer response. He said they were still updating their nutritional information to reflect menu additions.
Calorie count is just scratching the surface. 250 calories of candy and 250 calories of high fiber, nutrient-dense vegetables are going to yield vastly different effects on the human body. Best-selling author, Dr. Mark Hyman, who also hosts the popular podcast, “The Doctor’s Farmacy”, puts it like this, “food is not just energy but information or instructions or code that literally controls almost every function of your body—including your hormones, appetite, brain chemistry, immune system, gene expression, and even your microbiome…the quality of the information matters more than the quantity.”
When considering this in terms of energy sources outside the human body, this makes sense. Fossil fuels and solar power can both supply energy, but one of them is going to cause a lot of other unintended problems. Same goes for human energy sources.
McMahon did mention Pacific Dining is continuing to expand its vegetarian and plant-based options after the success of the recently added salad bar. It was refreshing to spot some fresh broccoli, bell pepper, and carrots on the small island anchored in the cafeteria. It was also encouraging to see the telltale bottle design of olive oil stationed in the corner – a healthy antioxidant powerhouse packed with omega-3’s. The creamy dressings ready to be ladeled, however, were not even visibly labeled, let alone marked with an ingredients list. Most salad dressings on the market are cut with the aforementioned cheap inflammatory vegetable oils. Whether or not these dressings are the same, that information needs to be front and center.
Changes take time. And, with every cent in a school budget accounted for, seemingly easy fixes such as swapping out cooking oils might raise expenses quickly. Replacing packaged items with high quality alternatives free of toxic ingredients brings up the cost for both the school and the students purchasing these items. But until those changes can be enacted, the only weapon students have for warding off disease and creating extraordinary health is information. And they deserve that information within hand’s reach and in full light. In the meantime, students – it’s on you.
Don’t assume. Ask questions. Stay curious. Arm yourself as best you can. You deserve every single opportunity to create an extraordinary body, mind, and life.
Amy Tilson-Lumetta is the managing and features editor of The Express. Follow her @AmyTLumetta.