science

Nutrition in college: Eat like you mean it

"Healthy food harvest"

"Healthy food harvest"

Image By: Jeff Miller

Nutrition is a strange topic. While focus on what we put on our plates has never been greater, widespread misinformation makes dietary decisions for the conscious consumer quite difficult. Carbs are the cause of obesity. Well, maybe. Definitely avoid fats, but not those ones. It may seem that nutrition is more about opinion than science.

In the age of the internet, you can find studies backing just about any food or beverage as the next great thing for your health. Sadly, the nature of nutrition makes it hard to isolate what exactly causes the response of our bodies. 

Maybe dark chocolate is good for you, but we do not know if a special chemical causes the benefits, or the chocolate as a whole. Science can’t definitively answer questions like this now, but there are some things we do know that can help you fuel your day and keep you in shape.

The best way to start a long day of studies is with carbohydrates. Though they often get a bad rap, carbs are essential for daily function. According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), they are the primary source of energy for our body and brain, making them vital for college students. Carbs should be eaten before working out, studying or doing anything, really.

The problems we have with carbs stem from snack foods, usually made with sugar and white flour. Snack foods, sugary bars and drinks are full of them, and can quickly cause you to crash after (or during) prolonged activity, mental or physical. This is because these products are heavy in sweeteners and white flour, generally considered the worst carbs. 

Dr. Beth Olson, Associate Professor of Nutrition at UW, warns against sugary drinks. She notes that the added sugar in soft drinks, coffee, and other sweetened beverages is responsible for about half of all added sugars in our diet, which add calories fast.

Katherine Marengo, a registered dietitian, says to avoid the dreaded energy crash, eat carb-rich whole foods that give long-lasting energy as a result of fiber, which causes slower digestion. Foods rich in good carbs include most fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products. 

When you run out of carbs to burn, your body turns to energy stores of fat. Contrary to popular belief, fats are not (always) the bad guy. In fact, you need them for storing energy, low intensity activities and absorbing certain vitamins and minerals, the ADA says.

The fats you should try to avoid are the ones commonly associated with packaged foods. Limiting fried foods is also something students should be wary of. These foods are often high in fats and sugars, calories that provide very little nutrition.

Good sources of fat that students should eat include avocados, nuts, lean meats and vegetable oils. These fats are healthy in moderation and are the best forms of energy storage for the long term without the heavy feeling associated with fatty foods. 

The last main nutrient is the most glamorous of the three. Protein is touted for its importance in active individuals, though its effects are often exaggerated. Active individuals should consume 0.5 - 0.8g protein/lb body weight according to the ADA. This means a 150lb student should have between 75g and 120g protein in a day, when exercising regularly. Most students do not need to worry about protein, however, and consuming the standard 2000 calories daily usually gets protein needs satisfied.

Protein supplementation is also something active Badgers should be cautious of. The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says “protein or amino acid supplementation has not been shown to positively influence athletic performance.” Protein is a vital part of muscle repair and growth, but stick to natural protein sources consumed shortly after a workout for the best effects.

Generally speaking, the best advice for nutrition is to eat things with few ingredients, or at least ingredients you can tell are in the product. This means a diet full of natural foods that are easily recognizable as foods. Packaged products that don’t resemble any of their actual ingredients should be a cause for concern. They are often made with cheap ingredients and are designed to optimize flavor at the expense of all nutrition.

Dr. Olson also notes that while we must eat healthy foods, we should eat specific food groups, not specific foods. Variety is an important part of any diet for keeping food interesting and ensuring you cover all your nutritional needs. 

Learning to eat healthy is difficult and requires mental strength and focus. Don’t be set on avoiding all treats, however. Be sure to indulge moderately to reward yourself. 

When you crave something, do not deny the urge, but be wary of your consumption. Moderation of bad foods, good foods, and all other products you consume is the best way to change your eating habits for the better.

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