Entering college is one of the most liberating events in a student’s life – finally being out from under the watchful eye of a parent who makes sure that all homework is done and school is attended every day. With all this new freedom, students will find themselves realizing that there were many parts of their life that they had not previously needed to worry about.

One issue that can be forgotten about is what to eat. Students on a meal plan don’t have to worry about cooking their food, but making decisions on what to eat at the dining hall can be difficult when there are so many options. Students could end up eating pizza, hamburgers and pasta every night. Once out of the freshman meal-plan life, food choices don’t get much better for upperclassmen cooking for themselves. The name of the game is to pick the foods that are the easiest and fastest to prepare. This means pre-cooked meals and a lot of snacks. All of these food choices can lead to detrimental effects if students are not consuming all the daily required nutrients.

In fact, a frightening number of students aren’t taking in what they need. According to a  USA Today study released in 2002, 66 percent of freshmen don’t consume the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day; 50 percent of all students don’t get enough fiber (25 grams a day); 60 percent eat too much artery-clogging saturated fat and 30 percent of women don’t get enough calcium.

Despite the alarming number of students who seem to only be eating junk food, there is also a large prevalence of eating disorders. Students believe that just cutting back on the number of calories consumed will result in favorable weight loss, but the truth is that without necessary nutrients, people end up not feeling their best due to lack of energy coming from malnutrition.

The eating habits displayed in college can have a wide array of negative effects one of which is the risk of developing an eating disorder. According to a study by Virginia Tech, roughly 18 percent of a subject pool taken from college students was at risk for an eating disorder. From the student’s eating, psychological and social habits, it was found that they led a lifestyle that had a higher chance of obtaining an eating disorder. Eating disorders can be battled for the remainder of an individual’s life. With permanent effects, it is better never to get started down this path.

The solution to this problem is not simple. Students need to be taught how to design a diet to get all the needed nutrients but also not consume too much of what can be harmful. Even after students get this information, the next hurdle is to form an environment where it is easy to make the right eating decisions.

An example is providing point-of-purchase information where students get their food. The dining hall should provide nutrient information for each dish, allowing the students to see what requirements they are filling as they chose their meal. It isn’t so much about limiting fats and calories as much as it is making sure to get all the parts of the diet that are needed to function.

The lack of ability to perform will be seen in the ability to achieve academically and maintain energy to sustain a healthy social life. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association investigated how marking items as healthier or more nutritious impacted the rate at which they were purchased. The study resulted in a 3.6 percent and 1.6 percent increase in sales of tagged items. This suggests that guiding information in place it can help make a difference in the food-decision-making process.

The effects of malnutrition are substantial and long-lasting. Without reform, there will continue to be a stream of students leaving college with the eating habits that can turn into chronic diseases and increase the number of overweight individuals. While most students understand the idea of eating healthy, it is necessary to build a support system that will help students perpetuate improved diets. A university-wide reform at Northeastern in the dining halls could be the first step in the direction of promoting healthier lifestyles.

– Patrick Sheedy is a sophomore health sciences major.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia, Creative Commons