Ten common questions students have about eating right

Answers to nutrition questions provide students the tools for a healthy lifestyle.

by Amanda Holst,
San Jose State University

Most of us have at least one unanswered question about nutrition and how it relates to our daily lives. Here are 10 commonly asked questions by college students about nutrition, and answers from two registered dietitians.

1. What makes my nutritional needs different from any other age group?

Different age groups have different nutritional needs. A person’s height, weight, age, and activity level also play a role.  Older students can have additional nutritional needs compared to younger students, and they have to make sure they’re getting enough nutrients to fuel and sustain their bodies. “We’re a commuter college, and we have a lot of older students,” says Rosalyn Chan, coordinator of student health services at Mission College in Santa Clara, California.

Chan explains that many of the students work full-time and take courses at night. Some have hour-long commutes. With their busy schedules, it can be hard for them to put together healthy meals. “Students need to plan their meals ahead,” she says. “Buy fresh foods for the week.” She suggests packing low-fat yogurt and adding in fresh fruit and nuts for a healthy snack on the go.  Nutrition experts often recommend that students follow a balanced [diet], including whole grains, vegetables, fruit, lean meats and proteins, and low-fat or nonfat dairy.

Kait Fortunato, a registered dietitian in Maryland, adds that college can be a stressful time and students can turn to food for comfort in times of sadness or distress, causing an unbalanced eating approach and even weight gain.  “A student who is not eating healthfully may not be able to focus or concentrate well in class,” says Chan. “A lack of proper nourishment could lead to a weakened immune system.”  Chan also says that some students don’t realize how much weight they’re putting on when eating junk food on the run. “We keep a scale in our reception area for students to weigh themselves,” she says. “It can be a real eye-opener.”

2. What vitamins should I be getting, and what are the best sources?

According to the Institute of Medicine, iron deficiency anemia is the most common form of nutritional deficiency. College females require a higher intake of iron as well as folate (a water-soluble vitamin B that occurs naturally in food) and calcium. College males often need more vitamin B, C, chromium (found in whole grains and tomatoes), and manganese (found in dark greens, berries, and brown rice) in their eating plan.

“If a student is eating healthfully, they probably don’t have to rely on a lot of vitamin supplements,” says Chan. “On the other hand, for students who are under stress and are not eating healthfully, vitamins can be helpful for them.”
Older students may have specific vitamin needs, such as additional calcium to maintain bone density.

3. How many calories should I be [consuming]?

Although there is no one recommendation on calories for all adults, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides an overall range of 1,800-2,400 calories. The amount of calories you consume can depend on how active you are and how many calories you’re burning.  If you want to know how many calories are in a certain food item or are trying to alter the amount of calories you eat in a day, then an online calorie counter can help.

4. How much fiber is recommended, and how does it benefit my body?

“Men need at least 35 grams of fiber daily, and women need at least 30 grams of fiber daily,” says LeeAnn Smith Weintraub, a registered dietitian in adolescent weight management based in Los Angeles, California.  “Fiber helps reduce the risk of heart disease, lowers cholesterol, and maintains blood glucose levels,” says Fortunato.
To ensure that you get enough daily fiber, the National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends eating unsweetened cereals, dried beans and peas, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

5. What are the healthiest grains?

Whole grains (whole wheat and brown rice) are more nutritious for you than refined grains (white rice and cookies) because they contain more vitamins and fiber.  “Choose whole grains over processed grains whenever possible,” says Weintraub.  The USDA recommends 6 to 11 servings of grains, with at least half coming from whole grains. The Whole Grains Council lists barley, oats, quinoa, colored and brown rice, and rye as examples of whole grain foods and flours.

6. How much dairy is recommended, and what are the pros and cons?

According to Fortunato, dairy has many nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, and vitamin D, but warns that some dairy products can contain high amounts of saturated fat. Calcium helps with bone growth. Milk is also rich in protein, which is vital for building muscle. The USDA recommends three cups of dairy daily for males and females ages 18-30.  “Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy products,” suggests Fortunato.

Other nutritionists recommend full-fat dairy products because the body better absorbs the nutrients in milk through the fat.  For those that are lactose intolerant or do not include dairy products in their diets, Weintraub recommends consuming dairy alternatives that are rich in calcium and vitamin D, such as fortified soy milk, orange juice, and cereals; leafy green vegetables; and tofu and almonds.

7. What are the proper food portions?

“Serving sizes can be found on the Nutrition Facts food label,” says Weintraub.
Be sure to include a variety of colors on your plate, choose proteins that are lean, and include low-fat milk and milk products.

8. What foods are the worst for me?

Low-quality snacks such as cookies and chips contain refined starches, fats, and empty calories, or calories that provide very few nutrients.  Fortunato recommends foods that are nutrient-dense, high in vitamins and minerals, fiber, protein, and whole grains.

9. What’s the difference between good and bad fats?

“Fat is definitely needed by the body for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, protecting organs, transporting nutrients, and building hormones,” says Fortunato.  She says that the “good” fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) are the ones that are plant- or oil-based. They are unsaturated and can help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk for heart disease. Good sources come from fish, olive oil, nuts, avocados, and flax.  “Bad” fats, on the other hand, “come from animal products and highly processed oils,” says Weintraub. Saturated and trans fats are known to lead to an increase in cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease.

10. Can a vegetarian eating plan be healthy?

“The more you restrict your diet, the more difficult it is to get the nutrients you need,” says Fortunato. “Vegetarians who exclude all dairy and animal flesh products face the greatest nutritional risks because some essential nutrients exist only in animals products.”  According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, a vegetarian diet can be healthy if it is designed to appropriately meet your dietary needs.

Leave a Reply