Healthy Food Choices

By Katherine Rowe
Photos by Mallory Allred

Executive Sous Chef Dewey McMurrey's test kitchen The stainless steel counters gleamed with a pristine cleanness that professional chefs pride themselves on. This is Dewey McMurrey’s test kitchen. The executive sous chef, who was educated at the Culinary Institute of America, not only caters Texas Tech University-sponsored events, but he also creates the menus implemented across campus.

“Everybody still says ‘yes’ to mac’n’cheese or something once in a while,” he said. “We don’t promote the unhealthy stuff, but we’re not going to stop serving it. Our No. 1 item on campus for the last decade, the top seller, is chicken strips.”

Obesogenic is how nutritionists categorize our society. The idea is that our environment causes obesity and, in a sense, promotes unhealthy habits.

College data shows about 35 to 36 percent of college students are overweight, said Debra Reed, Ph.D., a professor at Texas Tech. Her concentration is community nutrition, which translates to prevention, she said.

“Knowledge is always power,” she said. “A lot of people don’t even realize they’re overweight because overweight has become almost the norm. If almost 37 percent are overweight, then you don’t stick out anymore.”

She said whether on a college campus or at a worksite with 5,000 employees, healthy food choices are not the easy choice. A person has to work hard to find a healthy food choice, even at the grocery store. She said people have to look through 99.9 percent of the cereals to find one that is healthier. Snacks and cookies, she said, have hardly any nutritional benefits.

Reed said when she was a student at Texas Tech 35 years ago; about 10 percent of the students were overweight at that time. “There’s always been overweight, but now it’s an epidemic. That’s why there is an epidemic of all the other diseases, as well,” she said.

The health concerns that go with carrying extra pounds, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea, are raising the rate of health care. Reed said America is No. 1 in health care costs, and No. 47 in life expectancy, which is a figure that is lower than Cuba. She said the country is losing $300 billion a year because of the influx in overweight people.

Reed said health education has fallen by the wayside, people are unaware of the inputs their bodies need. High schools have now labeled health education “optional,” she said. However, Texas Tech offers many free ways to better one’s health. Free cooking demonstrations are available through Hospitality Services and classes offered at the Student Recreational Center. McMurrey said that residential and community assistants in the on-campus residence halls are responsible for hosting several events during the semester, and his free cooking demonstrations are an easy event for organization members to set up.

Chef Dewey McMurrey creating a fresh salad McMurrey said his demonstrations are free, and he sets up and cleans when he is finished. “They just contact me, and I show up and cook for everybody.”

McMurrey said his average number of demonstrations varies by semester, sometimes he hosts 12 lessons, and other times he hosts two lessons. The most requested recipes at these events, he said, are for cookies and pies.

“Oh great,” his nutrition assistant said. Amy Pohlmeier works for Texas Tech after she graduated from Texas A&M University. The doctoral student said she understands the idea of obesogenics.

“You can’t force somebody to eat healthy because they’re not going to do that,” she said. “So what we’re doing is trying to promote what is healthy.”

Of college students, 95 percent are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, Reed said.

Hospitality Services is focusing on the gap in education, Pohlmeier said. She had several brochures with subjects like Exercise, Fiber, and Smart Choice Labels. The Smart Choice labels can be found on food containing fewer than 400 calories or 30 grams of fat. Informational pamphlets can be found in dining halls and eating places around campus. The information provides students with nutritional suggestions that they need to know, like the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables.

Education is really lacking, Pohlmeier said. Some people may assume that lower calorie or low-fat meals lack taste, but McMurrey and Pohlmeier are working to ensure students like what they are being served. McMurrey said he is doing his best to make sure students get what they are paying for, too. A nine-month dining plan averages $3,000, and the operations cost is $1,850, according to the Texas Tech Hospitality Service’s website. McMurrey said the operations cost includes gas, water, heat and light.

With almost 30 locations for eating on campus, students are sure to get variety in menus. Cook-to-order venues and retail food stops are popping up all over campus, and McMurrey said dining halls could be on their way out in the next few years.

The time between classes can be quick, so students are looking for a fast, but satisfying, meal. McMurrey said people in general do not want food that is cold, lacking in taste or overpriced. But trying to feed almost 30,000 students can be difficult, which is the challenging part of his job, McMurrey said.

“That’s the first rule in hospitality, you can’t make everybody happy, but you could do your best,” he said.

McMurrey is trying to accommodate all students. With vegetarian menus, he said he is sure that those who choose to cut meat out of their diet are pleased. A gluten-free venue is expected to debut in fall 2011.

Cook-to-order stations give students the option to make their own meals, Pohlmeier said. Students could make choices, such as serving sauce on the side or a particular cooking method that does not require oil.

“I think education teaches (students) how to eat healthier on campus without everybody having to sacrifice if they want mac’n’cheese. I just think that it is really hard to change the obesogenic environment,” she said.

The nutritionists in the Human Sciences Building are working with Hospitality Services on several projects and trying to make changes to menus. Reed and McMurrey agree that education is the key to ensuring the health of Texas Tech students.

“We’re just not even kind of getting the basics. The basics are that people need to know where they can go to find out how many calories they need to eat and how to manage that within a day, with their food intake, and their physical activity,” Reed sad. “It’s just not happening. There’s no required courses. There are universities that require nutrition and physical activity,” she said.

If Texas Tech required a nutrition class, students would be required to be equipped with the tools they need to lead a healthy lifestyle, she said. Other policies also could be implemented, such as providing healthier food choices at sporting events and at student organization meetings.

“I haven’t read too much about them changing up the snack bars at sporting events,” Reed said.

At higher education institutions, students are pouring money into their learning experience, from books and class fees to housing and dining bucks. But students are not learning some lessons in the classroom that are vital to life after college. Reed said a national survey found that healthy eating habits are one of the most important employee characteristics that employers want.

Chef Dewey McMurrey likes to use fresh produce to create healthy menu items for Texas Tech students “College students are the next generation of parents and employees,” she said. “Students learn how to do it in college, healthy eating and healthy habits in general. If you’re neglecting your health for academics or for pleasure, then you’re not really going to finish college with all the skills your employers are looking for.”

She said weight is important, but fitness is important too. The two do not necessarily go together, but most of the time they do, she said.

“We don’t want to focus so much on the weight that we create eating disorders, but at the same time, we know that there are those people who need to be making healthier food choices and getting more physically active. If they take care of those two things, guess what? About 90 percent of people will lose weight.”

She recommends whole grain products, fruits and vegetables, and 30 minutes of physical activity per day. She said to start with small steps. “You don’t have to cut out, just cut down,” she said.

One of the main factors that contribute to weight gain is sleep deprivation. Reed said decreased sleep increases a person’s propensity to overeat because when a person feels tired, he or she eats more.

“First of all, having good sleep habits is actually very much related to managing your weight. If you go once or twice a semester out at 2 a.m., that’s OK, but if that is a habit, that’s probably not a good habit,” she said.

Reed believes nutrition and physical activity are low on people’s priority lists because they are too worried about work, school or meetings. Every student organization that meets in the Human Sciences Building serves soft drinks and pizza. She said the FIT Tech website provides healthier alternatives to serve during meetings. She also suggested incorporating physical activities in meetings. She said because a few people frequently come a few minutes early to a meeting, they should take advantage of the time for a walk.

Both Reed and McMurrey are looking for answers to provide students with healthy lifestyles. Reed said students need to tell her what their challenges are and what kind of help they need in order to overcome barriers. “Quite honestly, I don’t get it, because I’m already in that mode. You don’t have to convince me, but I don’t know what it would take to motivate someone else,” she said.

McMurrey is also looking to students for answers. You need to know what your customers want and how they feel to accomplish what they expect, he said.