We’ve all seen the articles about avoiding “The Freshman Fifteen”: that’s College Nutrition 101. So when someone asked about attaining and maintaining a healthy and clean lifestyle while in college, it really presented a new challenge.
It’s easy to look fit when you first get to school. For most students, mom (or dad) has been doing the bulk of the shopping and cooking, making “healthy” choices (hopefully!) and catering to your likes, dislikes and dietary needs. In addition to this, as a teenager, metabolism is most definitely on your side. And if it hasn’t been, it’s not going to kick into place by itself as you get into your twenties. The college years are a perfect time to start paying attention to the factors which will be prevalent to your health for the rest of your life.
The Quality of Your Food
In the past few years I’ve spent a good amount of time on college campuses, both professionally (as a lecturer for NOFA - the Northeast Organic Farming Association) and a parent. To say I’m zoned in on the food choices would be an understatement! College campuses are a microcosm of the country, much of what you see is the standard American diet, also known as the western diet. However, I have been impressed at the changes in institutionalized food services overall. Not only have they made a huge effort at getting “greener” and more environmentally friendly, something that was a long time coming, there seems to be a genuine awareness of nutrition. Is there a long way to go? Yes. Do you still have to take responsibility for your own diet? YES!
In the dining hall there are many pitfalls as, even though there may be healthy choices available, the unhealthy options are still out there. So it’s important to know the difference. There’s not enough room here for a whole course on nutrition(1), but it’s important to get your macro-nutrients every day: high quality sources of protein, whole-grains and fats (yes, fats!). Generally speaking, the less processed a food is, the better choice it will be. Let’s look at breakfast options. Muffins and cereals? The majority of these are highly sweetened and made from refined grains which will only draw on your energy an hour after you eat them. The better choice? Oatmeal with fresh fruit and milk or soy milk. Or go the distance and invest in a smoothie blender; keep milk or soy milk, wheat germ, frozen bananas and cinnamon in your dorm room refrigerator, whip it all up with a few ice cubes and water (don’t wake your roommates or they’ll want some!) and you’ll see the difference in how you feel. Healthy never tasted so delicious.
In the student union you may find lots of fast food eateries, but I’ve seen many other options as well, and these are happy to boast their nutritional stats. I was pleasantly surprised (shocked, actually!) to see grassfed beef burgers at an upstate New York campus recently. There are healthy soups and salads; very often colleges are in rural areas which have access to farms, and these offer organic fruits and vegetables on campus “farmers’ markets” — I’ve seen it!
One other category of food to learn about — and be cautious of — are whole grains. Again, you want to stick to foods that are the least refined. Brown rice over white rice. Breads which are made from stone-ground whole wheat, if you can. Potatoes aren’t a grain, but stick to baked over mashed (you don’t know what’s in there!). And I’m cringing even to write this to a college student, but french fries are a minefield if you’re trying to keep weight off and stay healthy. A recent study(2) has shown that you can put on pounds in four years just by eating unhealthfully prepared potatoes…hmm, how long does college last? The health ramifications are greater than that, though, as the type and cleanliness of oil used in making french fries could be questionable if you’re not actually cooking up those fries yourself (and, of course, you’re not).
College is not too early to learn how to read labels on food boxes; actually it’s the perfect time as you start to shop for yourself. Think about if this is, not only what you want to put into your body, but what you want to support in the food system. My conscientious questioner asked about “clean” food: look for non-GMO(3) foods — it’s a huge and timely movement taking place in the United States right now.
The Quantity of Your Food
Are you on a tight budget which limits the amount of money you can spend on “premium” food? Or, conversely, are you on an “all you can eat” meal plan which presents a totally different challenge — you are surrounded by food and want to try everything? Again, they both come down to choosing wisely. Survey your options and make the best choices for your health. What are the most whole, least processed foods? Are there organic foods available? You will find that if you are paying more attention to the quality of the food you eat, as discussed above, a smaller amount can be more satisfying. For example, a whole fruit for dessert is a great source of fiber and complex carbohydrates and not just refined sugars, like a stack of cookies or that cup of soft-serve.
A great strategy, now and for a lifelong healthy eating habit, is to fill your plate with lots of vegetables first. Is there a wok station in the dining hall? Start with stir-fried veggies, add brown rice and a lean protein of your choice and you will have a healthy meal. This picture shows plain chicken, but you could also substitute pork, beef, tofu or seafood. The key is to go light on the sauce — premixed stir-fry sauces are generally full of sodium and highly processed sugars, things that you don’t need in your diet. Train your palate to appreciate the more natural tastes of garlic and ginger, and a dash of tamari or soy.
By eating more vegetables as the basis of your meal, and higher quality foods alongside, you’ll not only kiss those “freshman fifteen” goodbye, you’ll very possibly begin to feel better than you ever did…and maybe even teach your folks a thing or two about good nutrition when you head home on break!
What Are You Drinking, and How Much?
Let’s start out with the non-alcoholic beverages, and in that category we can keep it simple: water. Start out with 8 ounces in the morning — it flushes out toxins and studies show it can even boost your metabolism!(4) Ditch the plastic water bottle habit that costs you precious dollars on a daily basis and is bad for the environment to boot. Did you know that the purity of the water in those bottles sometimes comes under scrutiny as well? Instead, invest in a filter pitcher that you can keep in your dorm room fridge and a non-PCB(5) bottle to bring with you to class and around campus. Drinking water all day will keep you hydrated and healthy!
Are you a coffee drinker? That’s fine, but if you drink coffee “drinks” that are more like syrup and whipped cream laden milkshakes, you’re kidding yourself by calling it coffee. Add milk or soy milk to plain coffee, and stick to the real 2-calorie deal.
College life abounds in alcohol and, although I can’t condone underage drinking. I need to comment on the health ramifications of it anyway. The habits of teenage and college age drinkers are quite different from most adult drinkers, and if you’re trying to lead a healthier lifestyle this is a great place to make a change. Binge drinking is deleterious to your health because of the stress it puts on your system. According to the CDC “About 90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinks.” Aside from a host of injuries, both intentional and unintentional, this type of drinking is linked to a range of health problems, such as high blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular disease (5); certainly things college students shouldn’t have to deal with. Aside from the health issues, the amount of calories are exponential: mixers, munchies, late night pizzas. By various accounts, there are 50-70 calories in a Jello shot. Yep, that’s per shot.
There are no parents or nutritionists looking over your shoulder here. If you really want to choose a healthier lifestyle, you’ll have to make your own decisions. Cut it down, change how you drink, and if you really want a clean system, you can always say no.
Start Exercising Now…and Don’t Stop!
Now that you’re paying such close attention to what’s going into your body, it would be remiss if you didn’t exercise that body as well. Young adulthood is the perfect time to start a lifetime exercise regimen, and college couldn’t be a better environment to embark on this journey. Again, it all comes down to choice: you can hang out in the dorm or you can choose to engage in activity. Once you make that decision you will find plenty of like-minded people who have made the same choice: at the gym, running, biking, taking a yoga class, a zumba class, what have you. Unfortunately, your metabolism begins to slow as you age, so learning to love exercise now is to your benefit.
Get Plenty of Sleep To Boost Your Immunity
Did you know that your immune system functions at 90% when you’re asleep but only 10% when you’re awake? So if you’re burning the candle at both ends — and what college student isn’t? — take advantage of the nights you don’t go out to try to turn in early. Another thing to consider is taking a multi-vitamin for extra insurance. (Have your parents send some to you — they’ll be glad you’re stepping up to the plate and paying attention to your health!)
Looking around at other college students, you’ll see plenty who are trim and fit. After all, when you’re twenty-something, age and genetics are on your side. But starting good habits early — in your early twenties is the perfect time — will ensure that you have the best odds for a lifetime of optimum health and the healthy good looks that go along with it. The proof will be at the twenty year reunion (and it comes around a lot faster than you think!), when those of you who have been eating a wholesome, healthy diet and exercising since college will STILL be looking your very best!
2 - http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1014296
3 - This article is a great place to start reading up on GMOs:http://www.nutritionprescription.biz/gmo-blog.html
4 - http://jcem.endojournals.org/content/88/12/6015.short
5 - http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/basicinformation/polychlorinated-biphenyls.cfm
6 - http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/binge-drinking.htm