Fighting the Battle of the Bulge

Colleges are joining the effort to turn around America's skyrocketing obesity rates.

By + More

Students are often lured to the University of Georgia's healthy cooking classes by the promise of extra credit (or leftovers), but dietitian Angela Ruhlen hopes the undergrads get more lasting benefits. "It's a chance for them to get nutrition info that's valid," says Ruhlen, who discusses topics like sensible snacking and healthy tailgating while waiting for the chicken nuggets (breaded with crushed whole wheat Ritz crackers and low-fat yogurt) to bake. "They're at a healthy weight right now, and it might not be on their radar that they need to learn about nutrition, but I sneak it in there."

The school is hardly alone in trying to keep students from packing on the pounds. From the University of South Carolina's eight-week "Choose to Lose" weight management program to the University of California-Irvine's Healthy Heart Station (which serves a low-salt, sugar-free, zero trans fat meal under 500 calories), many colleges are trimming the fat. They're also offering coordinated weight loss programs, sessions with nutritionists, mileage-marked running and walking paths, and more healthful dining options, including calorie-controlled meals. 

Why the hard sell on healthy eating? Some 11 percent of college students are obese, up from just 5 percent in 1993, according to last year's National College Health Assessment surveys. (That's still better than the U.S. population in general: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than one third of adults are obese.) 

Cafeteria lite. While schools such as the University of Maryland offer an "On the Lighter Side" option, others take a more unobtrusive approach. Babson College in Massachusetts has halved its once-standard 10-ounce ice cream servings, while Ohio University puts out low-fat muffins at breakfast, cooks its vegetables without butter or margarine, and offers Gardenburgers at the campus grill. The College of New Jersey set up a "farmers market" display in its dining hall and saw a 100 percent rise in fruit and vegetable consumption. 

Initiatives aimed at cutting campus waste can also reduce waistlines. The Sustainable Endowments Institute, a research organization that tracks environmental practices at more than 300 colleges and universities, says two thirds have done away with their (mostly plastic) trays­—partially or completely. (Dozens of schools have signed on to the "trayless Tuesday" movement.) This initiative has resulted not only in less garbage, but also in students eating less, as many now put their entire meal on a single plate. Janet Olivieri, a dining hall manager at Rochester Institute of Technology, says she has lost 10 pounds since the change. "If you want more, you have to make a conscious decision to go back for it."

Raising students' awareness of the environmental, social, and health issues related to food in a personal way can work better than standard academic approaches. In a recently published study by researchers at Stanford University Medical School, students who took a health-related human biology course actually reported eating fewer vegetables at the end of the term. However, students in a "Food and Society" class who were required to read Fast Food Nation and to watch the documentary Super Size Me (both works show the pernicious—and pervasive—effects of our fast food culture) responded very differently: They cut out fat and sugar on their own and added more vegetables to their diets. 

"This is a novel strategy, and we believe it is an important new direction to pursue," says Thomas Robinson, the study's senior author and director of Stanford's Center for Healthy Weight, since "urging people to make healthier choices with diet and to exercise has met with limited success." If the new approaches work, then the notorious "freshman 15" may become one rite of passage students can avoid. 

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.