TAMPA–Students at the University of South Florida have worked diligently toward expanding vegetarian options at on-campus dining halls, and this summer that work pays off.
The July opening of the Southeast Student Dining Facility, also known as Champion’s Choice, will arrive two years after student petitioning led to USF Dining adopting its first vegetarian and vegan menu items.
In 2009, students worked with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and USF Dining to increase the existing vegetarian choices in campus dining halls. Later that year USF placed fifth in a PETA2 national college challenge and in early 2011 enacted “Meatless Mondays” in the dining halls. In 2010 construction began on the Southeast Student Dining Facility, a predominantly vegetarian dining hall created to give students and student-athletes healthier dining options. But with the dining hall opening in July, many students and faculty question how healthy the increasingly trendy vegetarian diet is for students.
Dr. Denise Edwards, assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics and director of the USF Healthy Weight Clinic, said there’s at least one major benefit of being a vegetarian.
“The major health benefit is that is does decrease the amount of saturated fats in the diet since it will cut down on animal fats,” she said. “Ideally it would push people more toward eating vegetables and whole grains.”
Jenna Burns, marketing manager for USF Dining Services, also said a vegetarian diet had many benefits to offer.
“Vegetarian diets are incredibly healthy when planned well to include a variety of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes such as beans and lentils,” Burns said. “Calcium can be obtained from leafy greens such as kale and collard greens, as well as fortified foods like fruit juices, soy and rice milk and breakfast cereals…There really are no cons to a well planned vegan or vegetarian diet.”
USF Tampa already has three dining halls that offer salad bars, fresh fruit, and meatless options for students to choose from. When it becomes the fourth dining hall on campus, the Southeast Student Dining Facility will help broaden those options by substituting vegetarian and vegan ingredients in fresh meals.
“We are working to make more of the food options at Champion’s Choice friendly to vegetarians and vegans by adjusting the recipes, such as using olive oil instead of butter,” Burns said. “This will also make the recipes healthier. Since our dining halls serve food that is made directly in front of our customers, any item with meat can be modified to fit a vegan or vegetarian diet.”
USF Dining’s vegetarian streak is considered a healthy move according to one study. An April 2010 health study by Loma Linda University in California and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden found that “Vegetarians and semi vegetarians had significantly lower levels of fasting blood glucose, total cholesterol, waist circumference and (body mass index) when compared to non-vegetarians.”
The study also found that vegetarians are less at risk for coronary artery disease, a stroke, adult-onset diabetes and obesity compared to meat-eaters.
The construction of the dining hall was timed alongside the construction of the improved student recreation center–but Burns said that doesn’t mean the food there is only for athletes.
“(The Southeast Dining Facility) will serve all students including athletes,” Burns said. “There are many vegan and vegetarian athletes across the scope of athletics from IronMan Champions such as Brendan Brazier to NBA basketball Players like John Salley. Most report major performance benefits such as more energy and quicker recovery time from consuming a plant based diet.”
“I wouldn’t point an athlete towards being a vegetarian, I don’t think it would give them much of a benefit,” Edwards said. “(Athletes) would not have access to many of the important vitamins and nutrients their bodies need.”
Vegetarianism may attribute to weight loss once people begin to stray from fatty foods, but Edwards says going vegetarian should not be seen as an effective method to lose weight.
“It should not be thought of as a way to eat in order to lose weight, which
I see often,” Edwards said. “It doesn’t mean you have to cut out animal products in order to lose weight. The thing that would help you with weight loss is cutting out saturated fats, but you can do that and not be completely vegetarian.”
But some students have already seen results. Sean Goss, a senior majoring in environmental science and policy, said that he’s already noticed the positive side-effects of a vegetarian diet.
Goss, who is not into athletics, said he first went vegetarian to get away from his fast-food lifestyle.
“Becoming a vegetarian helped me eat healthier,” Goss said. “I mean, I could drink beer, eat French fries and cake and still be a vegetarian, but I decided to go through with an entire lifestyle change. I’ve already lost a few pounds since I’ve stopped eating fast-food, and a lot of my friends decided to go vegetarian themselves to lose weight and save innocent animals.”
Even though many students may find the diet trendy, an uninformed commitment could be damaging to a person’s health according to Edwards.
“You can quickly become deficient in vitamin B12 which is best absorbed from animal products,” Edwards said of the diet. “You have to be very diligent about getting protein intake from other sources. (A vegetarian diet) can steer students towards a diet very high in sugar if you are not careful, a lot of pastas, rices and breads.”
Briana Myers, a sophomore pre-med student who is active in sports off-campus, said that veggie-curious diners should be educated before they eat.
“I hope that the new dining hall doesn’t just have the same side-dishes that they try to pass off as entrees, I hope they have real vegetarian choices for interested people to try,” Myers said. “I would never become a vegetarian because people are attempting to live off of a diet without the important vitamins and nutrients that they need.”
According to Burns, the food will be fresh and made “right in front of the customer” like other dining halls around campus.
While USF works hard to accommodate vegetarians, there will always be meat options in campus dining halls Burns said. Goss said he’s proud of his university as long as the accomodation continues.
“I think that vegetarian diets are trendy for a great reason,” Goss said. “The fact that USF has taken notice makes me love my school even more.”