Frequently, college students may not select or purchase the most healthful options while at school. With the major shift in environment and academics, students can put the focus of nutritious eating on the back burner. As a result, several college students tend to gain weight.
Many factors can explain why students may not eat healthfully, including a lack of nutrition and diet education, social pressure, taste, and a lack of exposure prior to coming to college. Students may go for the most appealing, accessible, and easy options which can frequently include energy-dense, nutrient-poor, high-sodium, and high-fat products.
Let’s set the scenario: you are an incoming freshman with an unlimited meal plan. Back home you may have been used to eating home-cooked meals or what your parents provided you, but perhaps for the first time in your life you make all of the selections of what you eat every day. As many dining hall operate, you can basically treat each meal as an all-you-can-eat buffet. The choices are endless and calories never cross your mind. Breakfast could be a healthy choice such as fresh fruit and low-fat yogurt with almonds or it could be bacon, sausage, pancakes, eggs, hash browns, and toast. Which would you choose?
If you were any of the new college students around the country (that are not exactly focused on health), you may have chosen the latter. It’s often hard to keep nutrition and portion sizes in mind when there is such a selection in front of you. What students may not realize at the moment is that making these food choices into their usual dietary behaviors can become an unhealthy habit over time. These poor dietary habits can persist through adulthood, affecting their and their family’s health. Not only do poor dietary choices tend to carry over into adulthood when established at a young age, but they can also affect academic performance in college students. Many studies have found this to be true, noting the extreme importance of a healthy balanced diet while in school.
Social marketing and nutrition advertising in the dining halls have become emerging strategies in influencing students’ dietary choices. These tools can be used to increase awareness and motivate students to select healthier food choices. But, beyond these techniques what can we as parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches and other adult role models do to encourage these young adults to prevent poor eating habits and weight gain. We all know how difficult it can be to lose the weight once it is gained, so prevention is key.
Talking with your young adult and encouraging some good habits early may lead to healthier choices. Some of these include:
• Encouraging calorie free beverages. Many teens and young adults do not realize the number of calories they are consuming simply from their drinks. Encourage water, unsweetened tea, sugar-free sodas, low-fat dairy, or other calorie-free beverages. This simple change can make a huge difference.
• Talk about ways to increase fruits and vegetables in one’s diet. Snacks can be great ways to incorporate more of these daily. Teens and young adults often tend to love dips. Encourage low fat or low calorie dips with fruits and vegetables as a healthy way to snack. www.choosemyplate.org is a fantastic site that offers a plethora of tips on healthy eating as well as a SuperTracker that can help students plan, analyze, and track their diet and physical activity with personalized goal setting, virtual coaching, and journaling!
• Be physically active. This can be easier for young teens and adults on a college campus due to the amount of walking between buildings. Often times the college has a great facility for physical activities to be tried and sustained. Encourage the use of these facilities and ask your teen or young adult about this.
• Finally, talk to your teen or young student about portion sizes. College can be a great social experience and time to try new and different foods. Talk to them enjoying new tastes, but doing so in moderation.
We can all do our part in encouraging healthy behaviors and preventing weight gain. Helping our young adults do that can make a difference in the present and future.
Authors: Shannon Erskine, Dietetic intern/student, Bowling Green State University
Liz Smith, M.S., RDN, L.D. NE Regional Program Specialist, SNAP-Ed, Ohio State University Extension, firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewer: Michelle Treber, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Ohio State University Extension, Pickaway County, email@example.com
Peterson S, Duncan DP, Null DB, Roth SL, Gill L. Positive changes in perceptions and selections of healthful foods by college students after a short-term point-of-selection intervention at a dining hall. Journal of American College Health. 2010;58:425-431.
Wald A, Muennig PA, O’Connell KA, Garber CE. Associations between healthy lifestyle behaviors and academic performance in U.S. undergraduates: A secondary analysis of the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment II. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2014;28:298-305.
Photo credit: kidshealth.org/teen/school_jobs/college/freshman_15.html