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Running on empty

8 November 2011 No Comment

Mary V. Brown, Ph.D., CHES Assistant Professor, Public & Community Health

Recently, I found myself working late and still had several hours’ worth of work to complete. I had finished eating my lunch hours earlier and the hunger pangs were evidence that my stomach was now empty and needed more nutrition. The café in the Health Professions (HP) building at UVU West was already closed and I didn’t have time to drive over to the main campus to pick something up. What to do? Fortunately, the National Guard Building had a vending machine with a variety of tempting snacks that had the potential to hold me over until I could make it home for dinner. Now the dilemma begins — how can I make a healthy snack decision at the vending machine?

No doubt this scenario plays out every day in the lives of our students who are juggling school, work, families and social lives. Our employees are equally busy. Time and money are usually in short supply. A quick run to the vending machine can temporarily quiet a growling stomach but our choices can lead to long-term health consequences.

It is no secret that two-thirds of the adult American population are overweight or obese, and obesity can lead to a variety of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. Yet we live in such a busy, hectic society, that we are quick to grab some junk food and not think twice about the consequences.

Students and faculty in the Public and Community Health department at UVU have developed a nutrition education program designed to help vending machines users make healthy snack food choices. The “traffic light” system uses green, yellow and red stickers near the food selection to identify the healthiest (green) selections, the moderate (yellow) selections and least healthy (red) selections.

The traffic light system has been used in a variety of settings, including hospitals, businesses and secondary schools, but hasn’t been tested in the college setting. Deciding on the criteria for assessing the foods was a difficult task, as each study used different criteria. The research group finally decided (with the encouragement of a Registered Dietitian) to use the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines (PDF download) and the USDA Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value as the criteria.

Foods with a green sticker have 30 percent or less of their calories from fat, have 5 percent or less saturated fat, and are snacks with 250 or fewer calories. Yellow-stickered items have 30-40 percent of their calories from fat, between 6-10 percent saturated fat, and no more than 250 calories but have limited nutritional value. The red-stickered foods have more than 40 percent of their calories from fat, more than 10 percent saturated fat, and more than 250 calories.

The biggest challenge in selecting the criteria for assessing the snack foods was how to classify the nuts (almonds and peanuts). While nuts can be a very healthy snack, most people don’t realize they are about 80-percent fat and are high in calories. In the end, we stuck with the USDA dietary guidelines and the nuts received a red sticker.

Unfortunately, our “Navigate the Snack Food Debate” sticker system is only available on five of the 40-plus machines on campus and the intervention is time-limited. We recognize that vending machines are used for snacking and most don’t think of vending as healthy, but you can find something to eat that is a little less harmful to your health. So the next time you find yourself staring at the vending machine, think twice about the choice you are about to make. That big pink cookie is 40-percent fat and will cost you 500 calories with no nutritional value and will take one hour of jogging or two hours of walking just to burn off that one pink cookie! So, skip the cookies, candy, and chips, and make a lighter choice such as Chex Mix, baked chips or a Cliff bar. Your future health and wellness will depend on it!

— Mary

UVU students’ research helps educate campus about healthier vending machine choices (Press Release)
UVU Department of Public and Community Health
USDA Consumer Brochure (PDF download)
USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines Executive Summary (PDF download)
USDA Foods of Minimal Nutritional Value

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