Adios, A-Meat-Gos…Texas College Caf Goes Vegan

The Big Texan, an Amarillo, Texas landmark, has been serving 72-ounce steaks to customers since the early 1960s. Now, a few hundred miles to the east, some Texas college students are going all vegan.

Apparently, contrasts are bigger in Texas, too.

The University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton opened an all-vegan, full-service cafeteria on its campus last week, prompting applause from animal-rights activists, environmentalists and, of course, vegan students on campus. Although college campuses around the nation have been offering vegan choices for several years, UNT’s cafeteria appears to be the first exclusively vegan venue.

The menu eschews animal products, like meat, milk, and eggs and instead features vegetarian soups, paninis and vegetarian sushi. The university’s dining services reports that so far, many of the students who eat there aren’t necessarily vegan, but just want to eat healthy.

These students aren’t alone. A 2004 survey of college students by food service provider Aramark showed that one of every four students surveyed wanted vegan meal options on college campuses.

Keith Ayoob, director of the nutrition clinic at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said it makes sense that college students would want to explore new diets.

“Lots of young people experiment,” Ayoob said. “They do it with booze, drugs… why not a new way of eating?”

At first glance, going vegan seems far healthier than the typical college student diet. But dietitians warn that meals missing animal fats aren’t necessarily more nutritious.

“Just because they take something off the plate, what replaces it needs to be tasty and nutrient-rich,” said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who applauded UNT’s efforts to move beyond “uninspired vegetarian fare of plain salad and iceberg lettuce, or worse yet Twinkies and Diet Coke.”

Connie Diekman, director of nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, said that students who don’t choose their fruits and vegetables wisely may be missing out on key vitamins and nutrients, like protein, iron and vitamin B12.

“Vegetarian eating, and the vegan aspect, can be very nutritious if people are educated to make the right choices to meet their nutritional needs,” Diekman said.

And students still need to watch their intake of sugars, refined starch and oils, which are still included in vegan foods.

“Simply eating a vegan diet doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be eating better,” Ayoob said. “There can be vegan junk food, too.”