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Prairie Fare: How Do Cafeteria Choices Influence Our Diet and Health?

We don’t have to eat a boring diet to maintain our weight, but we do need to think about our food choices.

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension

I walked by the cafeteria line, then the salad bar and dessert areas.

I noted about six options for entrees and side dishes. A basket of fruit was at the end of the serving line.

The salad bar had about two dozen options, plus soup and the makings for a wide variety of sandwiches. I could choose from about a dozen beverages, including milk, pop and coffee.

We had plenty of meat, fish and poultry options during the week as well. Some options were gluten-free, and others were vegetarian.

In particular, the dessert area was “temptation alley,” with red velvet chocolate cake, cheese cake, cookies and an ice cream machine.

No one was going to be hungry after all these options. I was thinking about how sleepy I get when I eat too much for lunch. I tried to keep that in mind as I made my choices.

I decided to choose the nonfried entree options, a banana and a salad. I had to use all the willpower I possess.

I decided to have my dessert for dinner that night. The soft-serve ice cream was my choice.

I was on a former college campus, which is now a youth conference site. The cafeteria was bustling with at least 200 adults and youth that day.

As I thought about the cafeteria-style of eating, I remembered a study published in 2019. The researchers used rats as their “model” for nutrition behavior. Monitoring the eating habits of rodents in cages is less expensive and easier to control than free-roaming humans.

One group of rats was allowed to eat all it wanted of a “rat chow” diet, which was kind of boring. The other group of rats was provided with an “all-you-can-eat” cafeteria-style diet with lots of palatable foods. The study lasted 20 weeks.

The researchers monitored the rats’ food intake, weight, cholesterol, insulin levels and other blood chemical levels. At week 18, they also studied “cognition” (ability to think) by monitoring the rats’ ability to get through mazes and do other tasks.

What do you think happened with the cafeteria diet?

You guessed correctly. The rats ate a lot. In fact, the cafeteria rats ate six times the energy content of the chow-fed rats.

In other words, if we ate 500 calories of boring “chow,” our cafeteria-fed buddies would be having 3,000 calories of more palatable foods.

Among other findings, the cafeteria-fed rats gained a significant amount of weight, had larger abdomens, and elevated cholesterol and triglycerides, and their “good cholesterol” (HDL) declined.

Compared with the rat-chow rats, the cafeteria-fed rats showed memory declines and they were less interested in exploring novel items.

These cafeteria-fed rats probably were thinking about the treats that were going to show up for dinner. Maybe soft-serve cream was on the menu.

Thank heavens our brains are much larger than those of rats. We don’t have to eat a boring diet to maintain our weight, but we do need to think about our choices. If you find yourself at a cafeteria or buffet, try these strategies:

  • Have a small snack or a glass of water before you go to a buffet line or cafeteria. Think of it like going to a holiday party and not arriving at the party ravenously hungry.
  • Walk through the buffet line and pick out what you really, really want to taste. Have a small amount of your favorites and savor each bite.
  • Fill your first plate with vegetables, fruit and a moderate amount of lean protein. Choose the whole-grain breads.
  • Slow down while you eat. Remember, your brain and your stomach need to communicate with each other. Your brain can take 20 minutes to know you are full.

As noted, I had decided to treat myself to soft-serve ice cream for dinner at the cafeteria. In a cruel twist of fate, the ice cream machine was broken. I was disappointed. I even lifted the handle on the machine that had a large “out of order” sign on it.

Some foods, such as fruit, are naturally sweet. A sprinkle of cinnamon enhances the natural sweetness, so in honor of my missed dessert, here’s an easy one to try. This recipe is courtesy of the Iowa State University “Eat Smart. Spend Smart” program.

Hurry-up Baked Apples

2 medium-size tart apples (Granny Smith, Jonathan, Cortland, Fuji)

1 tsp. white or brown sugar

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 Tbsp. old-fashioned oatmeal (uncooked)

2 Tbsp. (total) raisins, dried cranberries, chopped walnuts or other nuts (your choice)

1 (6-ounce) container low-fat vanilla yogurt

Rinse apples and cut them in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to remove the cores and hollow out a space 1 inch or more deep. Arrange apple halves, cut sides up, in microwavable bowl or dish with sides. Cut thin slices off bottoms to keep the halves from tipping. Stir together sugar, cinnamon, oatmeal, dried fruit and nuts. Fill each apple half with this mixture. Cover the bowl with microwavable plastic wrap. Avoid having the wrap in contact with the food. Fold back one edge 1/4 inch to vent the steam. Microwave 3 to 3 1/2 minutes, or until apples can be cut easily. Remove from microwave and allow to stand a few minutes. Spoon yogurt over the top.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 120 calories, 2 grams (g) fat, 26 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 2 g protein and 30 milligrams sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson)


NDSU Agriculture Communication - Feb. 20, 2020

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, 701-231-7187, julie.garden-robinson@ndsu.edu
Editor:Ellen Crawford, 701-231-5391, ellen.crawford@ndsu.edu
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