Summer can be perfect time for college students to fix bad health habits

For college students, summer can be the time for a new lesson: how to take charge of their health.

In college, students often begin to make poor nutrition choices – compounded by the smorgasbord of junk food readily available in dorms and on campus. The result can be not only the "freshman 15" but a set of poor nutrition and exercise habits that become, by default, a lifestyle.

Summer, says Miranda Westfall, program manager and clinic dietitian at the UCLA Fit for Healthy Weight Program, is the perfect opportunity for students to begin focusing on nutrition, cooking, and physical activity. After all, they'll face these challenges – on a more permanent basis – after graduation.

Westfall suggests college students get a handle on difficult areas now -- and begin making manageable changes.

Tackling the underlying weight issues

Students who've gained extra weight should identify what may have contributed to the problem, Westfall says. They should ask themselves:

  • "Did I eat significantly more than I did before college because the food was so readily available?"
  • "Did I use food as a coping mechanism to deal with the stress of exams?"
  • "Did I have trouble making time for physical activity?"

Once students have identified a problem area, they should start by making changes – but not drastic ones.

"We have a tendency to go overboard and want to change everything at once," said Westfall. "This is a recipe for failure."

Westfall suggests:

  • "If you stopped exercising during the school year, instead of aiming for one hour of exercise every day, start with 30 minutes, three days per week. Then, build up from there."
  • "If you have been eating dessert every night in the cafeteria, cut down to five days per week, then four days, etc. If you find that you've gotten into a habit of eating when you're stressed, identify healthy coping mechanisms, such as going for a walk, calling a friend, or guided meditation."

Small changes such as these, she notes, will be sustainable and lead to big progress.

Making nutritional changes

Students who simply make poor nutrition choices should take more responsibility for the basics, Westfall says.

These easy steps can have a big impact:

  • Stock up on ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables. "Make sure you always have fruits and veggies prepped and easy to access. Keep a bowl of washed fruit on your countertop and washed and chopped veggies in plastic containers in the fridge."
  • Choose whole grains over refined grains. "Simple switches like choosing whole wheat pasta instead of regular pasta or brown rice instead of white rice are great for your diet. If you don't like the taste of whole grain products right now, start by using half refined grain product and half whole grain product, and then gradually transition to whole grain.
  • Invest in basic kitchen necessities. "Save money to purchase a few basic kitchen necessities. For students with access to a kitchen, this will allow them to bring their healthy eating habits into the school year. Keep track of your favorite recipes and make a note of what kitchen tools you use."
  • While these sorts of changes require some effort, Westfall says, they're well worth it. Focusing on diet and exercise during the summer will give students the resources they need to make the next year a healthy one.

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