Freshmen India Milling and Holly Ebbets hunched over a list of menu items from Chili’s restaurant, searching for the dishes with the most calories.
“The highest (calorie) dressing is Caesar or citrus balsamic vinaigrette,” Milling said. “I thought that was good for you.”
“What is good for you?” Milling asked, her laugh adding to the chatter of 14 other UGA freshmen crowded around the classroom’s conference table, scouring their own pages of restaurant nutrition facts.
The students were attempting to create the highest calorie meals possible from specific restaurants, such as Chili’s or Steak ‘n Shake-a challenge from food science and technology professor Louise Wicker. Her class, “Junk Food, Health Food and Choices,” is a part of the First-Year Odyssey seminar program, a set of classes offered to UGA freshmen on topics ranging from social media to obesity.
Wicker, who is also a member of UGA’s Obesity Initiative, hopes the seminar will help students make healthier food choices.
“I wanted to know more about what I was putting in my body,” said Sam Woo, referring to why he joined the class. Brooke Szoch said she joined the class to avoid the infamous “freshman 15,” the 15 pounds some students are said to gain their freshman year.
Wicker usually begins the semester by asking students what they like about food.
“Students usually say they like convenience and they like having foods that taste good,” Wicker said.
Cade Cleveland, one of Wicker’s current students, said price also influences his food choices.
Wicker uses exercises like designing high-calorie meals from restaurant nutritional facts to encourage the students to think about the food choices they make.
“It makes them look at calories,” Wicker said. “Some of the burgers from some of the fast-food restaurants have half a pound of beef, plus some bacon, plus some cheese, plus the sauces. They’re huge calorie-laden meals.”
This semester, Wicker also brought in packaged foods, like Oreos or granola bars, and had her class look at their nutritional labels. She told them to start by finding the serving size that matches up with the calorie and fat values. For example, a serving of Oreos is three cookies, which equals 160 calories.
“Most of us will eat an entire row of Oreo cookies, not just three cookies,” Wicker said to the class. A person eating an entire row will be getting many more calories than the 160 recorded on the package.
Students said that before the class, they didn’t pay much attention to nutrition labels.
“Sometimes I’ll eat a chip bag and think, ‘I wonder how many servings that was?'” Ebbets said. “Then, I’ll look back and realize, oh wow, I just ate the whole thing.”
Wicker’s class also covers other food-related issues, such as the controversy over genetically modified crops and whether processed foods are healthy.
Milling and Ebbets said the class has influenced the way they think about food and drink choices.