Question of the Week

June 29, 2009


With teens getting ready to head off to college in the fall, concerns about the "Freshman 15" are on the minds of many.

"Studies show that students on average gain 3 to 10 pounds during their first 2 years of college. Most of this weight gain occurs during the first semester of freshman year. College offers many temptations. You're on your own and free to eat what you want, when you want it. You can pile on the portions in the dining hall, eat dinners of french fries and ice cream, and indulge in sugary and salty snacks to fuel late-night study sessions. In addition, you may not get as much exercise as you did in high school. College is also a time of change, and the stress of acclimating to school can trigger overeating. People sometimes eat in response to anxiety, homesickness, sadness, or stress, and all of these can be part of adapting to being away at school."

College brings additional stress, additional freedom, and additional responsibility.

"You're away at college, and your parents are no longer looking over your shoulder to make sure you eat your vegetables. This and many other new freedoms might feel great. But they may not be good news for your body. While some students stock up on fruits and vegetables in the dining hall, most fill their trays with things they like without paying much attention to what their bodies need. Even someone with the best intentions probably finds it difficult to resist the less-healthy options. Your waistline's not the only thing at stake. The foods you choose affect your energy, concentration, and memory, because your body and brain need the right nutrition to function properly. ... For specific recommendations suited to your needs, talk to a doctor, registered dietitian, or your student health office or nutritional counselor at your university."

Concerns about food at college vary from person to person, as do the specific needs of each person. Some common questions on the minds of teens heading off to college include:

  • "What if I can't find any food I like? Be creative. If you don't like the hot food offered, try to combine foods from different areas of the dining hall. ... Many colleges have multiple dining halls that may serve different foods and meals. Try all the dining halls to figure out which ones you like best.
  • What if I'm a vegetarian? Most colleges offer vegetarian entrees at all meals such as veggie burgers, stir fries, and pasta dishes. Create your own vegetarian meal at the salad or sandwich bar by adding protein-rich ingredients like cheese, eggs, hummus, beans, or peanut butter.
  • What if I have class during meals? Food is the fuel your brain needs to help you think, so make time to eat. ... Even if you can't sit down for a full meal, pack a healthy portable snack such as fruit, trail mix, a granola or energy bar, or a sandwich.
  • How can I maintain good nutrition? Try to eat a variety of foods and don't skip meals. To get the most out of your meals, eat a balance of vegetarian proteins or lean meats, high fiber carbs, and healthy fats such as oils, nuts, and fish."

Maintaining good nutrition is easier for teens who have established eating habits that already include eating withing the basic guidelines of good health.

"The Dietary Guidelines describe a healthy diet as one that

  • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products;
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and
  • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars."

While these guidelines are broad, they offer a general idea of what one should eat. Teens who are getting ready to go off to college (and/ or getting ready to cook for themselves for the first time) may or may not have experience shopping for groceries, and may or may not have experience planning healthy meals.

Recipe planning and grocery shopping can be difficult for anyone on a tight budget, especially someone without experience with either. Recipes can be found for free online and in cookbooks at the local library. It can be helpful to look for cookbooks that focus on healthy eating (some of the research has already been done). For new cooks (or any cook in a hurry and on a budget), finding recipes that have a limited number of ingredients can also make it easier to shop and quickly prepare meals.

"You have thousands of foods to choose from in a supermarket, so it's easy to get tempted or forget something you really need. Making a list saves time in the store. Also, plan the recipes that you want to make in the next few days and list the ingredients you'll need. By making a list, you will:

  • plan better for what you're going to cook
  • avoid going back to the supermarket for a forgotten ingredient
  • eat healthier and avoid reaching for something on impulse
  • save money by not grabbing foods that aren't on the list
But even with a list, you need to make some decisions at the supermarket. It helps to think like a chef. A good chef makes lists of ingredients, but also looks over the meats and produce for what's freshest and what's a good deal."

While the grocery list is a starting place, the comparison shopping for the best deals and the freshest foods is often done in the aisles. Prepared food can help cut ingredients and time, but it can also be filled with hidden salt and sugar.

"Just because a food is high in vitamins doesn't mean it's healthy overall. Sure, it's great that your favorite cereal gives you a shot of vitamins and minerals. But what if it's also loaded with sugar? Eating healthy means choosing lots of different types of food throughout the day to get all the nutrients you need, such as vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fiber, and -- yes -- even fat. ... Labels give you information that can help you decide what to choose as part of an overall healthy eating plan. For example, it may be OK to eat a sugary cereal if you make up for it by not eating much sugary stuff for the rest of the day. Checking the labels on foods can alert you when a food is high in something like sugar so you can be prepared to make tradeoffs."

How many calories a person should eat in a day varies greatly depending on gender, activity level, current weight, and more. The best place to get individualized information about how to eat well is for each person to meet with his/ her health care provider and a nutritionist. For more general information, the MyPyramid website can provide a place to start when people are trying to make sense of the information on the food labels they are reading and figure out where to start.

"The recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines and in MyPyramid are for the general public over 2 years of age. MyPyramid is not a therapeutic diet for any specific health condition. Individuals with a chronic health condition should consult with a health care provider to determine what dietary pattern is appropriate for them. MyPyramid helps individuals use the Dietary Guidelines to:

While a healthy diet influences one's ability to stay healthy in college, making sure to incorporate exercise into daily life is also key.

"Top 5 Ways to Include Fitness in College Life

  • Walk or Bike to Class: Be active on the way to class instead of taking the bus or car.
  • Join an Intramural Sport: This is a fun way to meet new people and fit in exercise, too.
  • Go for a Walk with Friends: Stay fit and catch up with friends at the same time. Instead of taking a shortcut back to your dorm, take the scenic route and get in a little extra exercise.
  • Take a Fitness Class as a Course: This is a good way to include fitness into your routine and earn credit. Consider weight lifting or dancing.
  • Check out your College Gym: Most colleges have gyms or fitness centers that offer free or reduced price memberships. They may also offer classes such as yoga, cardio, kickboxing, and dancing."

Questions of the Week: What resources do you have to help you plan a healthy eating strategy? What resources does the school have available to help students eat right and stay healthy away from home? If you don't have access to a nutritionist, where can you begin? What habits can you start over the summer to help prepare you for a healthy lifestyle in the fall?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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