Maintaining a healthy and well-rounded diet as a college student can be a challenge, especially for those who lack substantial financial resources. Due to lack of money, many students rely on dining services and tend to purchase the cheapest food, which is usually the most unhealthy.
When a student’s dietary restrictions limit them from eating at these dining halls and other cheaper food options like fast-food restaurants, they may go nights without dinner or proper nutrients.
Sophomore women’s soccer player and nursing major Sophie Gardner faces this dilemma often when eating food as a vegan student-athlete at Seattle Pacific University.
Gardner has not eaten meat since her freshman year of high school after an impactful event at a restaurant convinced her to make the change.
“I initially decided to go vegetarian after getting food poisoning from being served bad meat at a sandwich shop. Since I was already dairy-free, it made it easy to also cut eggs and be completely plant-based. My mom and sister are both vegetarians, which makes eating at home easy as there are options readily available for me,” Gardner said.
After about a year of being vegetarian, Gardner decided to make the switch to veganism. This switch was sparked by researching the health benefits of plant-based diets. After Gardner conducted this research, she was fully convinced and made the commitment to eating entirely plant-based meals.
During her time as a student-athlete at SPU and practicing healthier eating habits, Gardner has gained crucial knowledge about the way diets impact your body’s functionality on and off the soccer field. This knowledge has led her to believe that there are misconceptions about what type of nutrients are needed to reach peak athletic performance.
“I believe eating a plant-based and low-processed diet is one of the healthiest ways to eat. There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding protein intake and a plant-based diet, but I have never struggled to meet and exceed my protein needs as an athlete. In my nutrition classes, and from just researching for myself, I have learned that the body has no way to store protein, and if you eat more than your recommended amount in a single sitting, it turns to fat,” Gardner said.
She argues that protein is not always the answer and that a different nutrient might be the more accurate way to stay healthy.
“Our body’s preferred fuel source, carbohydrates, is drastically different than that of protein, as our body has mechanisms to store glucose and use it in a reserve at other times. As an athlete, I eat a lot of carbohydrates to fuel my workouts. My body is fueled, energized, and ready to compete at the competitive level necessary because of the selective way that I fuel it,” Gardner said.
Gardner is passionate about her choice to eat a plant-based diet and enjoys the health benefits that it offers, but she also acknowledges being vegan on a college campus can be pretty difficult. It can be expensive to purchase resources each week to stock her dorm, but it is a necessary expense due to the unreliability of campus food. However, some locations on campus are more accessible than others.
“In addition to eating plant-based, I try to avoid as many processed foods as possible. The C-Store has done a good job providing adequate plant-based options. However, many of them are highly processed and have added sugar. I make most of my meals in my dorm room because I can control what goes into my food and choose ingredients that agree with my body and nutritional goals,” Gardner said.
Gwinn Commons Dining Hall, on the other hand, is more of a hit or miss for Gardner. At Gwinn, there is only one station allocated for those who do not eat meat and operate on only plant-based meals. The lack of options, lack of transparency of ingredients in meals and the possibility of cross-contamination make the dining hall less appealing for these students.
This means that these students may not eat dinner or that they will eat a meal without much substance or nutrients.
Gardner acknowledges that Gwinn has made changes and has attempted to be more inclusive of her and those on similar diets, but they still have a long way to go when it comes to awareness. A situation involving pho noodles and beef broth mixing with vegetarian broth led to Gardner experiencing one of those nights without dinner.
This is a huge problem for many vegetarians and vegans who haven’t had meat in years, especially Gardner.
“The issue is the workers put the beef broth behind the vegetable one, so as I was waiting in line, I was watching people pull ladles of the beef broth and spill it into the vegetable. It got to the point where the vegetable broth was discolored from beef broth being spilled into it, and I would have gotten very sick if I had eaten it. The simple switch between putting the vegetarian broth in the back and beef in the front would have made the difference of me being able to eat dinner at Gwinn that night,” Gardner said.
Although it is challenging to eat a plant-based diet at SPU and the options are not always consistent, Gardner does not believe it is something to shy away from. The health and environmental benefits it delivers are well worth the struggles.
“I would tell someone starting out on a plant-based diet that it is shockingly easier than they think. After a while, you quit thinking about and craving foods you used to like, and they eventually become unappealing. You also feel so much healthier and full of energy as you no longer are consuming inflammatory and processed foods. You are making a huge impact on your own body and the environment we share with everyone,” Gardner said.