The "fresher 5" — the amount of kilograms gained by first-year university students — could soon be a thing of the past at New Zealand's largest university, after moves to increase healthy food offerings on campus were boosted by a study showing most students wanted more fresh, healthy options.
The students' experiences of sometimes struggling to find healthy food were confirmed by the other focus of the study, an audit of 57 food outlets, including 29 vending machines, which found healthy food options were less available, less accessible, less promoted, and cost more than unhealthy items at six University of Auckland campuses.
The study, by a team of University of Auckland researchers and published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior last month , looked at the food environment and the buying behaviour, preferences and opinions of those working and studying at the country's largest university.
Almost 2000 staff and students shared in an online survey their experiences of buying food on campus. Students made up more than three-quarters of respondents.
Of the 28 outlets audited, one was categorised as unhealthy, five as healthy and the rest as intermediate, meaning they sold a mix of healthy and unhealthy options.
Of the 29 vending machines, one was classified as healthy, one as unhealthy and the rest were intermediate.
The most widely available snacks in vending machines were found to be chocolates and candy.
Half sold water.
The healthiness of the offerings at the university campuses was classified using the National Healthy Food and Drink Policy criteria, which outline the type of foods permitted for sale using the traffic light system and health star ratings.
Food environments were frequent targets of research, because they had such a big impact on people's food decisions, Dr Rajshri Roy, a University of Auckland nutrition and dietetics lecturer and the study's lead researcher, said.
"And workplaces and educational institutes are quite closed in terms of the surrounding environments. They're like food deserts. So there's a lot of research to see how we can make these environments better, so the healthy choice is the easy choice."
Overseas studies had shown students gained an average of 3.38kg within the first year of education because of changes in lifestyle, poor physical activity, unhealthy dietary behaviours, stress and comfort eating, Roy said.
Ministry of Health figures also show about 230,000 of New Zealanders aged 18 to 35 are overweight or obese.
The University of Auckland study showed most of those at the university for study or work were buying food and drinks on site; 79 per cent of those surveyed said they did so, and 41 per cent said they were likely to do so every time they were on campus.
Just under a quarter of respondents said they bought hot foods, such as pies and chips, and baked goods and candy, at university weekly or more. One in five bought soft, energy or sports drinks weekly, but only 10 per cent bought healthier snacks, such as nuts or fruit, once a week or more.
But respondents also said they wanted more healthy options and better value for
money: 60 per cent wanted more fresh fruit available and 66 per cent wanted monetary incentives for choosing healthier options. Just over half wanted visual guides for healthier choices.
The study concluded interventions improving food availability, accessibility, prices and promotions through policies were warranted and would be well received.
That work was already under way, Roy said.
"I conduct these studies in collaboration and association with the university commercial services who are in charge of the food service establishments and are keen to improve the environment through research-driven changes."
Grab Goodness vending machines, which stocked items with a health star rating of 3.5 or higher, had already replaced some of the vending machines at the university.
Healthy meals were also being identified with a tick, and slides explaining why, in a trial at two university food outlets, and halls of residences had introduced all-you-can-eat salad bars.
Masters student Kate Harrington was also looking at how prices affected on the purchasing behaviour of young adults at university, with the aim of making the "budgie" meals sold on campus healthier. (See more below.) Budgie meals are $6.50 or under and consist of protein, vegetables and carbohydrate.
It was important for the university to do what it could to help those on campus eat healthier, Roy said.
"As a university we're not just focusing on health and safety, but health and wellbeing."
But it was also not about taking away people's choices, she said.
"We're trying to increase the availability of healthy foods, but still keep some of the foods that people want. We're not saying this is going to change everyone's dietary needs, but we are trying to promote more healthy choices, because these are impressionable minds."
'It was quite difficult to chose healthy options' - University of Auckland student
When Kate Harrington arrived at the University of Auckland four years ago, she struggled to find healthy food on campus.
The then-Bachelor of Science in nutrition and food science undergraduate had always been "quite health-focused", and managed to avoid the famous "fresher 5" tradition of new students packing on the kilograms in their first year of study.
However, friends told her they had gained weight in their first year. Those living in halls of residences — Harrington lived at home — were particularly affected.
Although she hadn't gained weight, it hadn't been easy, Harrington said.
"I tried to find healthy options but there were definitely times when I was on the go and I'd choose a pastry ... it was quite difficult to chose healthy options, because there are a lot of energy-dense products with not many nutrients.
"There's lots of carb-heavy and baked goods and quite a lack of fruit and veges."
Changes underway had improved the situation, she said.
And Harrington, now studying towards a Masters of Health Sciences majoring in nutrition and dietetics, was doing her bit to help, too.
The 22-year-old's masters looks at how price affects the purchasing behaviours of young adults at university, with a focus on the "budgie meals" sold by campus food outlets. Budgie meals cost $6.50 or less.
Her research, due to be completed at the end of the year, was aimed at finding out how budgie meals could be healthier while remaining affordable.
"We are doing great research, it's just a matter of putting that into reality. That's the difficult part, but ... speaking with students and staff, they really want healthy options."