Before Lauren Ganavazos departs from her Germantown, Tenn., home for the University of Memphis, she stocks her bag with green beans and protein bars.
“I try to avoid eating on campus,” said Ganavazos, a 21-year-old junior. “If it’s healthy, it’s super-expensive.”
When Ganavazos graduated from high school and started college, she, like most of her comrades, ingested large quantities of fried catfish and mashed potatoes from on-campus eateries that cater to Southern palates, and had a college student’s taste for junk food.
But the plethora of out-of-shape students and the lack of affordable healthful-food options on campus recently propelled her to launch the group Students for Healthy Lifestyles.
“There are some healthy options, but they’re so expensive it’s not as accessible as eating junk food,” she said.
“The idea is that living healthfully should be accessible to everyone.”
When Ganavazos’ family decided to move briefly to Southern Florida, where she switched colleges her sophomore year for the in-state tuition, it changed her life.
In Florida, fitness and health were ingrained in the culture, both on and off campus.
Ganavazos, who had struggled with her weight and suffered from digestive issues, discovered that focusing on her health, and not just on being thin, made her feel fantastic.
She became a certified yoga instructor and switched her journalism major to health promotion and lifestyle management.
But when she returned to the U of M last year, she was dismayed to find that more students enjoyed wearing workout clothes than actually working out and that the perception of eating healthfully for many meant crash dieting.
Free health assessments given to roughly 200 students at the school’s annual health fair last fall found that 47 per cent were overweight or obese, according to Marian Levy, director of the Master of Public Health program.
The screenings also found that 42 per cent had pre-hypertensive systolic blood pressure, she said.
“These are students in their early 20s,” she said. “This is something we should really be alarmed at.”
The student group, which sprang up in December, quickly found a following.
Members range from health fanatics to those looking to learn more about getting healthy.
The group scheduled talks by a nutritionist and a session on coping with stress.
A university-sponsored health initiative kicked off in late January.
As an outgrowth of the campus going tobacco-free, the university has begun pushing students to get healthy with a website through which they can get nutritional information and track their progress.
There’s also new signage urging people to take the stairs, and the university has partnered with the campus food vendor to offer more nutritious options.
“The hope is people can become healthier and change their habits before the chronic diseases settle in,” said Levy, co-chairwoman of the campuswide initiative.
Students for Healthy Lifestyles offers a component the campus initiative does not.
“It’s the social support,” the professor said. “That’s really important at this age.”
Memphis college kids aren’t alone in letting their health slide.
Only 6.2 per cent of American college students eat five or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day, according to the 2011 National College Health Assessment by the American College Health Association.
Additionally, fewer than half, 48.3 per cent, meet the recommendations for physical activity set by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association.
For most college students, this is the first time they’ve been in control of everything that goes on their plate, Ganavazos said.
“Their parents aren’t buying their groceries anymore,” she said.
Yet the idea that eating healthfully is depriving oneself of good-tasting food keeps many from making the right decisions, she said.
“I’m so passionate about health because of what I got out of it,” she said.
Ganavazos had an eating disorder that she was able to put an end to by changing her body image through yoga.
And after a long stretch of suffering from abdominal pains from irritable bowel syndrome, she was able to erase her symptoms by eating properly, she said.
“It was hard for me at first, but now I don’t crave those fatty foods because it’s not part of my diet,” she said.