Food for thought: Exploring student eating habits at Conestoga

Food+for+thought%3A+Exploring+student+eating+habits+at+Conestoga

By Claire Guo, Audrey Kim and Katherine Lee,Co-Editors-in-Chief and Webmaster

The Spoke surveyed ten homerooms regarding their response to eating habits, separated by grade level and chosen randomly. In total, The Spoke collected 201 responses.

Sophomore Ellie Reiner said that she was in the sixth grade when two female classmates she didn’t know stopped her in the hallway.

“They pulled me over and started criticizing everything I was wearing,” Reiner said. “I remember how they said, ‘Why are you wearing athletic shorts? You’re too fat to be athletic.’”

Reiner, who has lifted weights since she was 10 years old and has competed in weightlifting since middle school, said that it was those kinds of comments, combined with societal expectations and beauty standards, that caused her to start dieting at an increasingly restrictive rate. Starting when she was 12 years old, Reiner cut out huge portions of her diet, including foods heavy in carbohydrates, processed sugars, and dairy. The results, she said, were terrible, because she was tired and emotional all the time.

That behavior changed in the eighth grade, when Reiner recognized some of the risks associated with what she was doing. According to Reiner, the possibility of her diet affecting her performance at weightlifting was what pushed her to stop.

“I realized that I can’t destroy my body, and that I need to nourish and treat it respectfully if I want to see results,” Reiner said. “And I realized that I would rather be happy, eat bread and be able to press (something like) 400 pounds than try to be size 0 and depressed all the time.”

Reiner isn’t the only one who feels or has felt pressure associated to eating in some way. According to a survey conducted by The Spoke, 76 percent of Conestoga students surveyed said that health, food pricing, sports, stress and/or social pressures affected their diets. 

The ways in which we consume food are changing as well. In America, food items that are marketed as organic and natural are increasingly appealing to more Millennials and Gen Z-ers, according to Packaged Facts, an organization that studies market research. Combined with former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act implemented in 2014, school nutrition and lunches have gained public attention as well as more government funding.

Health and Fitness teacher John Jones noted the importance of understanding nutrition and making good food choices on the part of students.

“Students are starting to get to an age where they’re becoming more independent. And if there’s a choice between a healthy food item and an unhealthy one, a lot of students might pick the unhealthier option,” Jones said. “And if you look at the leading causes of death in our society, some of the top causes of death are diet-related, so to be a healthier person, you really have to understand nutrition.”

With the holiday season approaching, The Spoke decided to look at how student eating habits and diets have changed in recent years, as well as how Conestoga encourages students to make healthy meal choices.

Students’ Diets

Sophomore Annie Sun started cooking for herself in February in the interest of taking better care of her body. She focuses on nutritious meals that fit her set daily caloric intake, with an emphasis on protein. 

“When I cook, I think about how many calories are going in it and what food groups are being represented. Every meal, you’re supposed to have a balance of all the food groups, so I make sure that I have everything,” Sun said. 

Sun, who also grocery shops for herself, believes that pressures from social media play a role in influencing how people think they should eat.

“I think the pressure to eat and look a certain way is all part of living in the 21st century, where every time you go on any type of social media, all you see is the perfect body or like the perfect dinner that helps you lose weight,” Sun said. “And all of those add pressure to how we see ourselves, and I feel like that’s the reason why everyone wants to get skinnier and wants to lose weight.”

Eating is also associated with the competitive atmosphere of high school. Sophomore Chanelle Ongagna recalls excessively snacking on cheese crackers following her freshman biology midterms.

“If you take a test, for example, and you come back afterwards and in your head you’re thinking ‘Oh I should have answered it like this’ and that feeling weighs on you and you want instant gratification, so you start grabbing unhealthy things to eat,” Ongagna said.

Student athletes also consider their food when preparing for the season. For student athletes competing in wrestling and rugby, weight makes a difference. After two years in the 182-lb weight class, wrestler and senior Joey Zhou decided to drop down a weight class. By running, lifting, and eating only one sandwich a day, Zhou lost 9 pounds this past September during preseason.

“If you’re trying to cut weight for wrestling in such a short amount of time, you need to (have a similar restrictive diet). But I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to be ‘healthy,’” Zhou said. “I bought so many packs of gum so that I could chew on it and not think about being hungry.”

However, other students, such as junior Ava Collin, believe that healthy eating does not necessarily require dietary restrictions. As a swimmer, Collin said that she has tried previously to eat “excessively healthy,” she said that she would rather eat what makes her happy even if not necessarily healthy.

“I think it’s very important to eat healthy. I do tend to eat on the healthy side, but I also don’t pay attention to it. So I try not to restrict myself. Like if I want to get a pizza, I will get a pizza,” Collin said.

General health is another factor students consider when eating. After considering the health benefits and watching a video of pigs getting killed to make pork, senior Simone Skinner cut red meat out of her diet in late August. 

“I used to eat red meat a lot, like every day, and it kind of changed my mood. So once I cut out red meat, I noticed that I started to become happier and more focused and all that, and I also lost a lot of weight,” Simone said. “I need to weigh myself to see how much, but I noticed that my stomach has gotten way smaller.”

Incorporating Nutrition at School

When Dave Preston became TESD’s Director of Food and Nutrition Services in 2004, fryers lined the cafeteria kitchen at Conestoga. About five years later, the district replaced all the fryers with ovens. Now foods that used to be fried, like chicken and fries, are baked.

During his 13 years with the district, Preston has overseen changes to TESD food services aimed to improve the nutrition of students’ diets. He decides the school menu each year, adhering to detailed national and state regulations. The National School Lunch Program’s (NSLP) nutrition standards, for example, require that ½ cup of dark green vegetables and 1½ red/orange vegetables be offered in the meal pattern every day at the high school level.

When writing meal plans, Preston also considers healthiness and what students have liked in the past. Will this menu item ultimately sell?

“If everybody took what was on that menu, it would be a piece of cake (to improve student nutrition). But when we do our nutrition analysis, it’s actually based on what’s taken,” Preston said. “The biggest thing I look at is last time this was on the menu, how many did we sell?”

He’s noticed that student preferences have grown “more sophisticated” over his 13 years, and believes that kids are generally eating healthier, too. The hummus plates and salad platters that initially sold poorly at the elementary schools are now much more popular.

Sometimes a financial incentive can help encourage that healthy preference. On your way out of the cafeteria, have you noticed the bins of carrots and apples by the registers? Two years ago, Preston decided to put those bins by cafeteria registers throughout the district. That way, cafeteria staffers manning the registers can ask students if they’d like to add fruits or vegetables to their lunch and even remind students that buying them may make their meal cheaper. Since the district is only reimbursed by the government for meals containing three of five food components, including at least ½ cup of fruits or vegetables, an addition of carrots or apples often makes for a cheaper lunch. “What’s In A Meal?” posters throughout the cafeteria also remind kids that eating healthier—or at least buying fruits or vegetables—can lower the cost of their meal.

“We’re trying to help. So when a student comes up and they have a sandwich and a milk (which is not a reimbursable meal) we say do you want to add an apple or carrots or both? You can take them,” Preston said.

Under the TESD Wellness Policy, nutrition and healthful eating is also incorporated into the curriculum across the district.

According to Health and Fitness teacher John Jones, nutrition has always been incorporated into the health curriculum, but is being pushed more to the forefront in recent years.

“With obesity rates climbing and childhood obesity climbing and diabetes in children rates increasing, health professionals have sort of made it a point that we need to get this education out to children at younger ages,” Jones said.

Similarly, health teacher Marcia Mariani said that it is important for students to realize the long term effects of what they eat. 

“I think kids get so focused on the here and now, and I really wish kids would just remember to stretch to ten, twenty, years down the road,” Mariani said. “What do you want your life to be? Do you want to be able to run around in the yard with your kids, do you want to be able to go on trips and travel? If so, your health means everything. And that starts with what you’re putting into your body and how you’re treating your body.”

Looking to the future

Problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and other diet-related chronic diseases are not issues that many students have to worry about in their everyday lives. But eating healthy is still paramount to their health, as students start to determine their eating habits for their future, according to dietician Monique Dowd, who teaches nutrition classes at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We’ve seen this shift where the main problem (in nutrition) in the early 20th century was the lack of food and nutrients available, and now people are dying due to an overabundance of food, with diseases such as obesity and diabetes,” Dowd said. “So, if possible, students should strive for five (daily servings of vegetables and fruits), as well as add as much color and nutrients to your diet.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that Americans include foods from all food groups, decrease calories from added sugars and sodium intake, and choose nutrient-dense foods over unhealthier options. They also note, however, that every individual has cultural and personal preferences, and they should adjust to those preferences to easily maintain healthy eating patterns. 

For Sun, diet is in the small things. When she heats the stove in her kitchen, she greases the pan with olive oil instead of butter as a healthier option. She buys whole grain instead of white bread at the grocery store and bakes her pancakes using quinoa instead of flour. At restaurants, she opts for a salad rather than a greasy hamburger with a side of fries. Sun said that students who want to make a shift toward healthier eating tend to lack the motivation to do so, but once they get onto the path toward a healthy lifestyle, it is not that difficult to maintain.

“You have to focus on being healthier because if you’re healthier, all the stuff that you want to be will come naturally, even though it will take time,” Sun said. “Eating healthy honestly boosts my self confidence because I know what I’m doing is making myself better and it shows through how I go through my everyday life.”