This entry was originally written as a guest op-ed for the Lincoln University Clarion. It was not published.
Lincoln University’s recent decision to require obese students to take an exercise course in order to graduate has understandably aroused a good deal of controversy. While exercise does combat obesity, university officials are neglecting the other, larger half of the problem. In fact, a quick look at what the university feeds its students shows that it’s actually making things worse.
While school officials are forcing students to take time from their busy days and money from their light wallets in order to curb weight gain, they are directly worsening the obesity problem with the food that they offer on campus.
First, consider that the leading sources of saturated fat and cholesterol in American diets are meat, eggs and dairy products. These are, by and large, the reason for America’s gargantuan rates of obesity (and the obesity epidemic’s deadly entourage of diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, to name a few).
At least three of the restaurants in Lincoln’s Row are an affront to any concept of healthy eating. Grill 155 boasts that its ‘ultimate cheeseburgers’ and Philly cheesesteaks make it an alternative to Burger King and McDonald’s. Bluestown BBQ prides itself on its beef, chicken and ‘creamy’ (read: fatty) coleslaw. The final stroke is an on-campus KFC: one of the most obesity-inducing fast-food outlets in America, the restaurant sells fried chicken as its staple food.
In the dining halls, the choices are not much better. One online menu’s headline selections were barbecue pork chops, whipped cheddar potatoes (I’m not sure how you whip cheddar, but I’m positive that it doesn’t make it healthier) and fried pollock.
These are the choices at a university that is effectively punishing its students for being obese? How are Lions supposed to maintain a healthy weight when their primary options are high-cholesterol, high-fat and high-calorie foods?
To put this in context, consider that the World Cancer Research Fund has repeatedly stated that a key to lowering the risk of cancer, heart disease and strokes is to eat a plant-based diet. Dairy products, which contain no fiber or complex carbohydrates, are laden with saturated fat and cholesterol. Women who eat meat daily are almost four times as likely to get breast cancer as women who don’t eat meat as frequently, and men with diets rich in meat, eggs and dairy products are almost four times as likely to develop prostate cancer as men with the lowest meat intake.
That said, perhaps offering every student who fills out a dining survey a six-piece Hot Wings meal from KFC – a 450-calorie item that contains half one’s daily cholesterol allowance – is not the best idea.
The supposed alternatives to these belt-straining options are almost as inadequate. Steamed fresh vegetables and a salad bar, although healthier than slabs of red meat and gobs of cheese, are not sufficient for a healthy diet.
Lincoln University can effectively attack the very real problem of obesity and other health risks by simply offering more vegan options in its cafeterias and other dining areas. That way, students would not be forced to take any courses that they do not want to take and would have access to nutritious and tasty options that would have a positive impact on their body mass index.
Every dish imaginable can be made vegetarian, and these dishes are just as appetizing as, and much healthier than, what’s currently on the menu. For starters, Dining Services could offer spicy black-bean burgers, veggie riblets, vegan pizza or more ethnic favorites, such as hummus and vegetarian curry.
Many other schools, such as those featured in peta2′s Most Vegetarian-Friendly Colleges contest, have recognized the many benefits of offering more vegetarian and vegan options. For instance, Wesleyan University offers three-mushroom vegan ragu with penne pasta, Oberlin College has seitan pepper steak and the University of South Florida offers vegan black-bean soup and vegetarian sausages.
Exercise is an excellent way to stay healthy, but diet is even more important. Instead of cutting into students’ time and tuition, we can tackle health issues by cutting out certain foods. Giving students healthy food options (rather than orders) both allows freedom of choice and tackles the heart of the issue: diet.