When you get to college, and you're trying to eat well, there are so many temptations and challenges -- fast foods and late-night pizza, navigating the dining halls, limited transportation to grocery stores. For most college students, this is the first time living away from home. This new found independence is exciting, but comes with challenges, says a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences researcher and UF/IFAS Extension specialist.
Poor nutrition habits can have a negative impact on health, body weight, and, behaviors formed during this initial period of independence can last a lifetime, said Anne Mathews, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of food science. While the so-called "Freshmen 15" is a bit of an exaggeration, most college students gain excess weight. On average, college students gain about 7 pounds during the first year, and many continue to gain weight at a slower rate throughout college.
Mathews works as an investigator on a national project that's trying to get college students to live healthier lifestyles, says you can eat healthy meals in college just by paying attention to a few details.
"Like other adults, the college students we work with choose their foods based on taste, price and convenience," said Anne Mathews, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of food science and human nutrition and a registered dietitian. "Many also say they select foods based on what they perceive will keep them full for the longest period of time as they are often unsure where and when their next meal will come with classes, club meetings, and hours of studying."
National statistics show an alarming increase in adolescent obesity, the target of this study. The percentage of people aged 12 to 19 who were obese increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent from 1980 to 2012, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Knowing these factors, here are some of Mathews' tips to help college students live healthfully on campus:
•Keep your favorite fruits and vegetables on hand. If they taste good to you, you are more likely to eat them regularly.
•Aim for at least three different foods at each meal. Pack a few fruits and veggies to go with you each day so you can supplement meals where they aren't offered, or enjoy as a snack.
•Plan ahead. Glance at your schedule regularly and think about where and what you will eat. Stick to your plan.
•At the dining hall or any other place a meal is offered, scan your choices and fill half your plate with vegetables and fruit first. Then add the entrée.
•Eat a protein-rich food at each meal. Nuts, seeds, cheese and yogurt are easy, convenient choices that you can pack yourself if needed.
•Invest in a great "to go" or lunch box. Pick one that fits your backpack and has compartments to keep foods separate.
•Learn how to make a few simple, healthy meals that don't require many ingredients or utensils. Search the Internet for easy recipes that can be cooked in a microwave.
•If transportation is a challenge, ask a friend for a ride, ride your bike with a backpack or take the bus on the weekend to the grocery store, and only buy what you can eat and store for the next several days. Avoid buying less healthy snacks like chips and cookies. Spend your money and storage space on your favorite nutrient rich foods.
•Encourage campus organizations to offer healthier options at meetings where food is provided. With a little effort and planning, it can be done.
Mathews is part of team of researchers putting together a nationwide program called Get Fruved. This is a campaign that uses peer interaction to try to get high school and college students to eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise more and manage stress more effectively.
UF students are involved in creating the program from a $4.9 million federal research and Extension grant awarded in 2014. Mathews is the primary investigator for UF's part of the study.
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences