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College Students Fail to Make the Nutritional Grade

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
 
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College Students Fail to Make the Nutritional Grade

An estimated 1.2 million American teenagers are in college for their freshman year. Millions more are also in school. To no one's great surprise, they're not eating as well as when they lived at home.

"Two things really stand out," says Christina Economos, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition at the Tufts University School of Nutrition Science and Policy. The first is that on campus, "fruit and vegetable consumption goes down." The second: "The level of physical activity...decreases." These two factors contribute to a third finding, Dr. Economos notes, "which is an increase in body weight—5 pounds for women, 3 pounds for men."

Weighty Concerns

Okay, it's not the "freshman 15" that many people talk about when referring to the common first-year-away weight gain. But the slight weight shift—combined with the drop in fruit and vegetable intake—is only part of the problem.

By the end of freshman year, Dr. Economos reports, more than 50 percent of students are eating too much fat, and some 70 to 80 percent are getting too much saturated and trans-fats, the least healthy forms of fat. Furthermore, some 90 percent fail to meet the recommended fiber intake of 25 grams a day.

"A lot of processed food, a lot of fast food," contribute to the extra fat and the fiber deficit, Dr. Economos points out.

Many in both sexes also fall woefully short on calcium, and almost half of freshman women are taking in too little iron.

A Free-for-All in the Dining Hall

There are a number of reasons for the nutritional slide into too much fat, too little fiber, and so on. Perhaps the most obvious is that "campus eating is a free-for-all," as Bethesda dietitian Ann Litt puts it in her new book, The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus. Dr. Economos agrees, saying that a lot of the extra saturated fat, for instance, is attributable to "the roast beef sub at one in the morning, the pizza, the ice cream."

There's more to it, however, than the fact that "there are unlimited choices of food and no parents to tell you what, how much, or when to eat," writes Ms. Litt. For example, she points out that "eating in the cafeteria is like eating in a restaurant," with huge portions and a huge array of options. Then, too, Ms. Litt comments, "the all-you-can eat-concept in most college food services is an open invitation to overeat."

Add to that, Ms. Litt says, the lack of a consistent schedule; the fact that food is a "familiar companion" and can serve as a great distraction, comfort, or social crutch during the emotional "chaos" and stress of college life; the fact that sitting around and eating is a popular social activity in college; and the often frequent alcohol consumption, which triggers eating cues in the absence of true hunger. So it's easy to see how good nutrition habits fall by the wayside in favor of grabbing whatever's convenient, comforting, or socially acceptable.

The Parent's Role

Is there anything parents can do to help their away-at-school children eat better than they otherwise might?

Having modeled good eating habits is important. "If the parents are ordering take-out for most meals at home," says Annie Gazdag, PhD, a researcher at Tufts, "that's not setting up college students for putting meals together on their own. That's setting them up for ordering sweet and sour pork."

Parents can also step in with some advice to kids who don't want to hear it, says Ms. Litt. Just make sure it's advice "that's not judgmental," she says. "Not, `Watch out, you're going to gain 15 pounds!'" but "`Here are some suggestions about what to keep in the dorm-room fridge.'"

Dr. Gazdag also advises parents to be available but not intrusive or judgmental. "If a child gains 5 pounds, don't freak out about it. If a child becomes vegetarian, don't react too strongly."

Of course, Dr. Gazdag says, "be concerned about very rapid, very severe weight loss or a lot of weight fluctuations," because "those things may indicate that something more severe is happening."

Be concerned about heavy drinking, too, she advises. But even then, rather than say, "`Stop drinking. You're irresponsible, going out and partying,' be open to talking about the stress of being away at school," which is why a lot of college students, particularly men, over-imbibe.

What it comes down to, says Dr. Gazdag, is being "open and receptive rather than reactionary. Ask how things are going." Reassure that "a lot of new stress can be difficult. Let them know that you're available. What they really need to know is that their parents are unconditionally loving and unqualifiedly accepting no matter what is going on," eating-wise or otherwise.

Nutrition Cheat Sheet for College Students

If you want to know the bare minimum for decent nutrition status, consider the following tips:

  • Eat a minimum of three servings of vegetables a day.
  • Eat at least two fruits daily.
  • Eat at least three daily servings of dairy foods. Dairy items include a cup of milk, 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese, and a cup of yogurt.
  • Have breakfast, no matter how late you may wake up. Starting the day with a meal gets your entire day's eating off on the right foot.
  • Accept that you're going to keep unusual hours and therefore will often be eating late at night. But "this late-night eating should be more like a mini-meal, with a beginning and an end, rather than an endless eating orgy," advises Ms. Litt. Have a cup of soup with toast, low fat yogurt with fruit, a bowl of cereal with milk, or a slice of pizza and a small salad.
  • If you choose to drink, drink responsibly. That's no more than two drinks a day for men, one for women. More than that can cloud judgment, impair performance, academically and otherwise, and lead to overeating--alcohol triggers the appetite. A drink is a 12-ounce beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine, or a cocktail made with 1 to 1 1/2 ounces of hard liquor.
  • Get regular physical activity. Exercise habits generally drop off in college, but researchers at Tufts University have found that those who engage routinely in some vigorous physical activity not only eat better but also use their time more productively and rate their academic competence higher. "Once you get that structure" of exercise, says Tufts' Dr. Economos, "other healthy habits fall into place, and you become more productive in other areas of your life."

RESOURCES

American Council on Exercise
http://www.acefitness.org

My Pyramid - United States Department of Agriculture
http://www.mypyramid.gov/

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
www.ccfn.ca

Healthy Canadians
http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca

References

Ann Litt. The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus.



Last reviewed February 2008 by Dianne Scheinberg MS, RD, LDN

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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