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College cafeteria snack food purchases become less healthy with each passing week of the semester

Just, David R., Mitsuru Shimizu, Prerna Saini, Ying Cao and Brian Wansink (2012). College cafeteria snack food purchases become less healthy with each passing week of the semester. Journal of Public Health Nutrition, 39 (7), 1291 – 1295. doi: 10.1017/S136898001200328X

Weight gain, often referred to as the “Freshman 15,” is a common occurrence among first year college students potentially because of increased snacking, partying, and stress levels.  The central focus of this study was not to analyze the specific causes behind weight gain, but to test if there was a systematic difference in the purchases of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ snacks over one semester.

The study focused on purchases of à la carte snack items at the four largest dining locations on Cornell University’s campus. Purchases were observed during four, eighteen week long, semesters: Fall 2006, Spring 2007, Fall 2007 and Spring 2008. All a la carte items were categorized as healthy (having low fat, cholesterol and/or sodium) or unhealthy (having high fat, cholesterol and/or sodium). Sales were measured for both categories over each semester. Sales of foods categorized as sandwiches or “other” (cookies, muffins & soup) were also measured. For each category, the percent change was calculated each week to identify any trends in snack sales during the semester. 

The results of the study showed that, as the semester progressed, there was an increase in overall purchases of both healthy and unhealthy snacks. Healthy foods only comprised about a fifth of snack purchases, while unhealthy foods consistently comprised about two fifths of snack purchases. There was an especially drastic increase in unhealthy snack sales in the last two weeks (prior to the finals period). There was a significant decrease in the purchase of healthy snacks during the same two-week period. These results indicate a relationship between the evolution of daily factors and their influence, such as increasing academic stress and workload, and access to unhealthy food.

The implications of this study are twofold: 1) the association between times of increased stress and increased purchase of unhealthy choices should be taken into consideration when discussing aspects that contribute to student mental and physical health, and 2) those who oversee food provision and interact with students during the academic year should put more emphasis on healthy food choices as the semester progresses to increase purchasing of healthy foods.