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It’s that time of year again when millions of young adults are settling into their first semester away from home. I vividly remember the day my parents took me up to the University of Florida to drop me off at Hall 95. I cried as we drove up I-75, leaving behind Sarasota, my home for the previous 15 years. I had the full range of typical freshman emotions — scared, excited, and nervous, but I was ready to be a Gator!
Your college years can be some of the best years, especially if you get to experience them on a huge college campus like the University of Florida. With a student population of 40,000, it’s like living in a special little city within a city. However, in a sea of 40,000 students, you soon realize you are left to your own devices. And when you’re suddenly faced with a random class schedule, extracurricular activities (for me it was the Dazzlers Dance Team), dorm life, a social life, and meal planning…something is going to suffer. In my case, it was the meal planning that suffered.
I had been a vegetarian since middle school and I didn’t have my own car, so trips to the grocery store were dependent on car-owning friends. My diet consisted of non-perishables, Diet Coke, and whatever food was available on campus. Not what you would call a balanced diet. I lacked basic nutrition knowledge, and as a result, I made plenty of mistakes; but with a few bits of key knowledge, you don’t have to.
Basic nutrition information can be simple enough to get you through college with a healthy and fit body! You just need to remember the following 3 elements of nutrient intake, and you should be able to maintain a slightly balanced and manageable diet. If I had been aware of these elements of nutrient intake back in 1998, I would have been golden from day one of college. Hopefully, these three keys will help you shine.
You must eat every 3 hours. This schedule is imperative. Eating every 3 hours will help to keep your blood sugar level which in turn will keep you energized. Keeping this regular schedule may also prevent binge eating, which is a sure fire way to pack on the pounds. Eating every 3 hours will also let your body know that you do not plan to starve it, which is an important component of weight loss/management. If your body is convinced it won’t get fed, it will do everything it can to hold on to excess fat to use as an energy source (this is bad). To fully explain it, I would have to go into a somewhat complex biochemistry lesson, so let’s just say it’s a survival mechanism. If your body is in a state of starvation, it will hold on to excess fat and break down muscle. But when your body is in a state of energy balance, it allows you to preserve your muscle and get rid of that excess, unwanted fat. There is no need to hold on to it anymore, resulting in a healthier body composition.
I would love it if your diet consisted of fruits and veggies, whole grains, low fat dairy products, and proteins like lean meats, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Unfortunately, with our crazy, nonstop schedules, fatty, crappy food is bound to sneak into our diets here and there. Because of this, portion sizes are incredibly important! I would love for you to weigh and measure all of your meals, but this is not always possible. For most people, it is a slightly unrealistic expectation. So, just use common sense. Having pizza? Eat 1 slice instead of 4 and load it up with veggies. Going out for a burger and fries? Eat half the burger and have veggies instead of fries. If food comes in a package, read the label and pay attention to serving sizes. You would be surprised at how many packages of food contain more than one serving.
The topic of portion control opens up a whole other world of questions, but I really want you to focus on keeping it simple. If you’re a generally healthy person trying to lose weight, keeping your portion sizes small so that you’ll eat less is a good bet for obtaining or maintaining a healthy body composition. Food is not a reward, it is fuel. Which brings me to my third nutrition key.
Food = Fuel
Food = Fuel. What does that mean? It means exactly what it says. Food is your body’s source of fuel. The following analogy, given by one of my grad-school professors, Dan Benardot, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., FACSM, sums up this point perfectly. I’m not giving it to you verbatim, but you will get the idea. ‘Say you have a Ferrari (I did say this is an analogy, didn’t I?) and one day you were planning to drive from Atlanta to Nashville, but your gas tank is close to E. You go to the gas station for a fill up, but they are out of premium, high-octane gas, which is highly recommended for Ferrari’s and other high-performance automobiles. Now, keep in mind, it is imperative that you get to Nashville that day. So, do you try to drive to Nashville on E, or do you fill up with the lower-octane gas which is staring you in the face? Take a second to ponder that. Okay, what did you decide? Do you risk getting out on the freeway with an empty tank, hoping you make it to Nashville, or do you add a few gallons of the low-octane fuel knowing that your arrival in Nashville is vital? Exactly, you add the low-octane gas–at least enough to get you to Nashville where you might be able to find the premium stuff. Now think of yourself as that high-performance Ferrari. Sure, you would rather add premium food to your body whenever you can, but if you can’t, you eat the best available option because you never want to get out on the road while you’re on E.’ Your body needs fuel to function, just as your car needs fuel to function. Get it? Food = Fuel. So, If you’re on campus, heading to class, and your last snack was 3 hours ago, but the only thing that’s left in the vending machine is a candy bar, and you’re about to sit through an hour and a half lecture, what do you do? Yes, you eat the candy bar, plain and simple. The energy from that candy bar will keep your blood sugar up, and probably help you avoid being either the poor schlub who falls asleep in class and then gets called out by the teacher, or the student who nearly jumps out of their chair while having one of those weird ‘falling’ dreams. What’s the moral to this story? Always keep gas in your Ferrari.
- Food = Fuel
It’s that simple. Don’t confuse yourself by overanalyzing nutrition and experimenting with fad diets that promise “amazing results in just days!” For a generally healthy person, especially one who is in college, living on a fixed income, and trying to enjoy a social life in between classes and studying, simple nutrition is key.
Bonus Alcohol Section (21 and Up)
Now I know that no underage drinking occurs on college campuses, so I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this section and you are not 21, you are just prepping yourself for the future.
Keep in mind that all alcohol has 7 kcal per gram. The low calorie alcoholic beverages are usually watered down which is how they can claim a lower calorie content. All alcohol is turned into fat in the body, there is no escaping that, but I know drinking is going to happen in college so I shall offer some tips to keep your calorie intake a little lower when tailgating on game day or heading out to a bar.
- Alternate alcoholic beverages with a glass of water. This will slow down your alcohol intake and keep you hydrated.
- Avoid sugary mixed drinks. Pick mixers like water, soda water, or tomato juice (actual tomato juice, not Bloody Mary mix) and top with a lime or lemon wedge.
- AVOID SHOTS! Shooters are the easiest way to consume a boat load of calories and sugars. Although it’s not scientifically proven, people do dumber things when shots are involved (and with Facebook and Twitter, you’ll probably want to avoid dumb drunken actions).
- Eat before a night of drinking. Do not substitute your dinner with a pitcher of beer.
- Eat after drinking. Rather than hitting up a drive thru or 24 hour diner, have a PB&J. This might help you feel better the day after a night out so you won’t crave greasy, hangover food.
- Final bonus tip: Always have a designated driver!:) If none of your friends want to drive, take a cab. It will be money well spent, I promise!