$149,992 for Grant to Study Fighting Freshman Fat

June 5, 2013 - 11:39 AM

Healthier School Foods

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2012 file photo, side salads, apple sauce and plums await students . (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has awarded a grant of $149,992 to study the on-campus food choices of college students.

The grant was awarded to Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey for the “Prevention of Late Adolescent Obesity in the College Environment: an Optimal Default Paradigm.”  The project started at the beginning of this year and is running through the end of 2014.

A focus of the study is the weight gain of college freshman. According to the USDA non-technical summary of the grant, “The first year of college is a time of transition when adolescents are first learning to manage their own energy intake and expenditure without parental supervision. Many students obtain their meals on campus and are confronted with a wide array of food choices without any limitation on options or portion sizes.”

Project Director Dr. Katharine Loeb of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Psychology department tells CNSNews.com, “First year students are at a potentially vulnerable juncture.”

“So what were hoping, especially for first year students, but certainly there’s benefit for all four years of college, is that college dining environments could make it easier to choose healthier foods by making those foods the default and by making it at least a bit inconvenient to access the alternative,” she said.

The project requires designing a menu of healthy meals, not so-healthy meals and a free array of both food choices. One condition of the experiment will have the menu featuring the healthy meal options in large print at the top, followed by the less-healthy options in smaller print and requiring a 15-minute wait to be served.

The second condition has the less healthy options at the top in large print, with the healthy meals listed below in smaller print requiring a 15-minute wait.

The third condition for study will offer both options, “both healthy and unhealthy items will be displayed simultaneously, with no wait for any item,” the USDA grant summary says.

“Specifically, results of these experiments will inform policies regarding default selection procedures in college and university dining programs.”

Loeb says, “The beauty of optimal default is that it does not fundamentally restrict free choice, it just positions the choices to increase the likelihood that the better option will be chosen. ‘Better’ is defined as what is in the individuals or public’s interest.”

“We’re hypothesizing that by positioning choices more optimally, that it will be easier for students to stay with healthier choices that have better nutritional value, which would ideally prevent weight gain and obesity along with facilitating other health benefits,” Loeb said.