Summer gives college students a chance to (finally) learn about nutrition

College students coming home for the summer can be faced with a rude awakening when it comes to health and nutrition. Whether they've gained the "freshman 15" or realized that off-campus exercise takes planning, many find that life outside the school year can pose unexpected challenges.

Miranda Westfall, program manager and clinic dietitian at the UCLA Fit for Healthy Weight Program, says summer 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.

In order to get on track to a healthier diet and lifestyle, Westfall suggests students get a grasp on areas of difficulty and then begin making manageable changes.

Tackling the underlying issues

For students who gained too much weight, Westfall suggests identifying what may have contributed to the problem. She recommends that students ask themselves:

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

Once students have identified the 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, but then we’re easily discouraged when we aren’t able to follow through on all of our goals," Westfall says. "This is a recipe for failure."

Instead, Westfall calls for manageable steps. Some examples:

  • "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, you can 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 per week, 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 using a guided meditation."

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

Making nutritional changes

After leaving high school and the parental influence behind, many college students make poor nutrition choices in college. Ultimately, they can fail to take responsibility for their own nutrition. Summer, Westfall says, provides the perfect opportunity to learn.

"Learning how to shop for food and cook allows a student to take control of their own diet, weight, and health," Westfall says. "This is a good time for students to learn how to cook healthy, tasty recipes that they will have in their culinary toolbox for a lifetime."

These easy steps, Westfall says, 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. Most people don’t eat the suggested four-and-a-half to five cups of fruits and vegetables each day. Keeping fruits and veggies in arms reach will make it easier to make a healthy choice when you’re reaching for a snack."
  • 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. It takes a while for our taste buds to adjust to new flavors. As an added benefit, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables also have fiber, which will help fill you up with fewer calories and keep you full longer to meet any weight loss goals you may have."
  • Invest in basic kitchen necessities. "Save up some 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. For example, if you find that love making homemade hummus, you may want to invest in an inexpensive food processor."

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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