Nutrition Nightmare

It was the summer of 1995 in Mumbai, and I was spending my school break at my grandma’s house. One day, as I was rousing myself from an afternoon slumber in her room, I saw her jabbing her stomach with a huge injection. Suddenly, I was wide awake. I had always known that she has diabetes. All I had understood about it was that she couldn’t eat candy, the worst possible outcome according to a child.  Over the years, as more of my family members fell prey to this disease, I learned that it causes blood sugar levels to rise due to a lack of insulin production (Type 1) or because of insulin resistance (Type 2). The elevated blood sugar, if uncontrolled, affects different organs and can cause neuropathy, nephropathy, eye damage, foot damage, heart disease, and gum disease. Today, fresh off my internship with a medical device manufacturer that makes devices for diabetes patients, I have a much deeper understanding of the disease and realize that it has outcomes much worse than not being able to eat candy.

The International Diabetes Federation says that 44.3 million North Americans had diabetes in 2015, and that this number will increase to epidemic proportions of 60.5 million by 2040. Specifically, Texas ranks number 13 with 11.4 percent of its population having Diabetes. Not surprisingly, Texas also ranks number 10 in adult obesity with a sharp increase from previous years to the current rate of 32.4 percent. The connection between obesity and Type 2 diabetes is an old one (Type 1 is autoimmune.) Traditionally known as adult-onset diabetes, Type 2 is a huge concern among obese children and youth and comes with a doubled risk of death. In fact, an Assistant Professor of molecular and cell biology at UTD, Dr. Jung-whan Kim, published a study establishing a clear link between obesity and diabetes, in which he concludes that insulin resistance is caused by the constant production of the H1-F protein due to chronic inflammation in the fat tissue of obese people.

But why should we as UTD students care about this? Though genetic predisposition to the disease is one factor, a major burden of the risk lies on obesity and a lack of physical activity. A prevalence of both at a young age will put a student at a greater risk at developing this metabolic disorder as they grow older. A bigger question, however, is what causes the above to prevail in the first place. A popular and strongly held belief is that if a person eats irresponsibly and doesn’t exercise, well, they had it coming. But did they? How about questioning the environment that surrounds us that not just enables but deliberately fosters bad eating habits amongst students? It’s not just personal food policing that will help prevent or tackle obesity and its related illnesses like Type 2 diabetes, but a change in the nutritive landscape in which students thrive.

Let’s take a look at dining options at UTD. Apart from some fresh, “real” food served at the Dining Hall and the Pub, both expensive options, the other options are IHOP, Einstein Bagels, Panda Express, Chick-fil-A, Moe’s, Smashed, Papa John’s Pizza, Create, Subway and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. These are primarily fast-food outlets producing food in an assembly line-like fashion. When the McDonald brothers invented the factory-style division of labor in the kitchen to cut costs in the 1930s, they were not motivated to provide the most nutritious food but to produce cheap food with the cheapest labor and the cheapest ingredients procured through unsustainable farming and animal husbandry practices. Other restaurants have followed suit — drive-through fast food and fast-casual food concepts are commonplace today and plague us both on and off campus. Their idea is to target three aspects of food that create the greatest release of dopamine (the neurotransmitter that tells your brain you’re happy) — salt, sugar, and fat. These appear in inordinate quantities in all types of fast foods, which can make you exceed the daily recommended intake set by the American Heart Association (AHA) in just one meal. The Chick-Fil-A cobb salad must be healthy because it has the word ‘salad’ in it, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t – this salad makes you consume 60 percent of the daily salt allowance in one sitting. The fruit parfaits at Outtakes are also loaded up on sugars. No wonder students are so tempted to chow down on burgers, fries, and doughnuts and then wash those down with sugary drinks. Student life can be stressful, so students often find themselves reaching out to these “comfort foods” to stay awake for a test or a paper submission. With lack of awareness, easy access to these foods, and in most cases, with them being the only food option, it doesn’t take that long to gain that “freshman fifteen”.

One might argue that their grandma’s apple pie has sugar, salt, and fat, so clearly it’s as bad as these fast foods. This is false. While the above must be consumed in moderation, your grandma’s apple pie has a better chance of being nutritious than fast foods because the ingredients and cooking methods of home cooking differ significantly from those of profit-motivated companies. Your grandmother probably handpicked the best ingredients, slow-cooked them, and didn’t have to add preservatives to increase the shelf life of the pie because she knows it will be finished within a couple days at the most.

If not having the highest quality, antibiotic and growth hormone-free, organically and sustainably grown ingredients in your food isn’t an issue for you, then additives should be. Case in point — in 2014, Subway stopped using azodicarbonamide, a chemical used in yoga mats and tires, to strengthen their batter after several protests. Subway defended itself by saying that it was FDA-approved to be safe in the right quantities. But this is the problem — there are many loopholes in the FDA processes, labeling and inspections of food, regulations, and guidelines, which creates misinformation and confusion. Earlier this year, the USDA, the agency in charge of strengthening America’s farming, food, and agriculture industries, released dietary guidelines to help people “make healthy food and beverage choices.” But a TIME magazine article pointed out how politics skewed guidelines on meat consumption, with Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard, going as far as to state that the meat industry has historically had “huge influence” on USDA. Then there was the fat-bashing in the 1980s and 1990s, where fats were advised to be removed from the American diet, a suggestion that was never founded in science but which created a lucrative new fat-free product segment for food corporations. Thus, FDA/USDA-approved does not always mean that the food is good for you. Additionally, chemical additives to improve the look, flavor, texture, and color find their way into these foods and many packaged ones you pick up at the store. One look at the label and you see a laundry list of ingredients that have no business being there in the first place. For example, Ben & Jerry ice creams have soybean oil, artificial dyes, and high fructose corn syrup in them, the latter of which is directly linked to Type 2 diabetes.

Food corporations use the excuse that consumers must self-police what they eat. In other words, they continue to put bad food on our tables or in cars and expect the consumer to know what a Class II preservative means and make the right choice. The problem with that is obvious.

So if you’re like me and get bored of carefully constructed salads at CREATE, protein bars from the campus bookstore, or rarely available bananas at Starbucks, you will go hungry while on campus. If a company cafeteria in an expensive city like California can provide egg-white omelets with veggies for $3 and salmon filets on whole grain bagel for $7, why can’t we have wholesome, freshly-prepared, inexpensive food choices in an educational institution whose mission is to develop the youth holistically?

A viral photo blog from 2015 about school lunches from around the world compared U.S. school lunches to those from other countries. Needless to say, the American lunches were less green and the most imbalanced in the major food groups of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Michelle Obama received a lot of flak for her Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, part of the Let’s Move campaign of 2010, which allowed the U.S. Agriculture Department to set new nutritional standards for all food sold in schools for the first time in more than 30 years. The new requirements called for increased servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in meals, as well as decreases in the amount of sodium and sugar and a ban on trans fats. One of the biggest criticisms is that it is creating a “nanny state”. If students in America don’t want to be nannied into eating healthy, they shouldn’t be bullied into eating unhealthy either. If it is choice we want, let us have both types of food options on campus so we are truly free to make our own decisions.

But food environment changes warrant policy changes on campus, and until that happens, are we at the mercy of deep-fried chicken wings? Fortunately, a little self-policing here by way of educated food shopping and making the time to cook quick, easy, and healthy meals will go a long way. UTD employees receive regular email updates with recipes from the Living Well cookbook, but others can use a simple Google search or follow certain health-focused chefs that teach simple techniques.

It may cost more to cook a healthy meal from scratch than to buy a happy meal from a drive-through. But the choice really boils down to this — would you rather pay with your wallet now or pay with your health (and wallet) later? It definitely takes more effort and a lifestyle change for many to educate themselves on health and nutrition choices and to actively, consistently make those choices. But good health has to be earned; it’s not a given. So the next time, when you find yourself sacrificing your health for an A or for work, know that you are also sowing the seeds for addictive habits that will prevail in high-stress jobs in the future.

Pushing for an environment conducive to making healthy choices will reduce the anxiety of self-policing. And what can be a better place than a university campus for that? Young students are malleable to cultural shifts, and such a shift is urgently needed so that us Comets can shoot for success and wellbeing instead of hurtling towards disease and oblivion.