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Nutrition in College: Answers From the Experts

02/18/2015 05:42 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Between class and work responsibilities, new environments, cultural changes and increased alcohol consumption, it's no surprise college students often struggle to maintain healthy lifestyles and make good nutritional choices. We're constantly lacking sleep, time for the gym -- and cash, and eating right isn't always a top priority.

I sat down with a few of Penn State University's nutrition experts to get some answers about the obstacles we often face as students and the types of habits we should be forming to make the right decisions and feel our best during our college years.

Why the freshman 15?

"When transitioning into college, students have free rein over everything they eat," said Registered Dietitian Melissa Hendricks. "They might not have been able to eat pizza two meals a day before, and now pizza is readily available all day long. It's that free rein that can be difficult for students.

"High school students often play sports, and now in college they may not be as apt to stay active," she continued. "There are not significant changes in metabolism from high school to college. It has a lot more to do with lifestyle changes."

According to Penn State nutrition instructor, Dr. Alison Borkowska, overwhelming schedules can be a major reason for students' bad eating habits. "They're encountering levels of stress and scheduling that they've never experienced before," she said. "They've never had this many things to be responsible for, including putting food in their mouths."

"There's a huge adjustment that takes place when students leave home and come to college," added Dr. Rebecca Corwin, an associate professor of nutritional sciences and neuroscience. "It's a very stressful and vulnerable time."

What kind of habits should students avoid?

"Where I see a lot of problems is late night eating -- whatever time that may be," said Dr. Penny Kris-Etherton, a distinguished nutrition professor. "Whether it's 11 o'clock at night, or 2 o'clock in the morning after students have been out partying, they go and eat. In most situations, they're eating high calorie foods.

"Recent data shows how many calories Americans are getting from snacks," she continued. "We eat about four to five times a day, and we're seeing that snacks are providing as many calories as breakfast. A study done at Purdue University shows that with this amount of snacking we are basically eating another meal. Over the years portion sizes have gotten bigger, and that means more calories."

According to Hendricks, eating on the run may be problematic as well. "I see food service going from sit-down traditional meals to on-the-run," she said. "Our whole society has become grab-and-go and quick service, and sometimes that makes it harder to incorporate healthy foods. It's hard to eat a salad when you're walking to class."

What about fad diets?

"I don't like fad diets," said Borkowska. "What is the goal? Are they effective in terms of weight loss? Maybe. The Atkins diet for sure -- there's no question about it, people lose weight on it. But do they keep that weight off? Does it help them in the long run? What are the long-term impacts of those diets? The Paleo diet, for example, works because you're not taking in a lot of refined carbohydrates, but it has a lot of flaws, and it's just a fad."

According to Corwin, there are increased trends toward going gluten-free. However, there is evidence that it may not be the gluten that's causing the problem in a lot of these foods. "Some of the foods that contain gluten also contain FODMAPs, and these may be the culprits -- not the gluten," she said. "So some of the paranoia is not necessarily warranted. If you're eliminating grains, I have some concerns about losing B vitamins.

"For those that try the Paleo diet, it's important to get as complete a diet as you can," Corwin continued. "Young women especially -- you're still laying down your bone mass. This is a prime time to be taking care of your bones and depositing in the reservoir while you still can. Dairy is not as evil or as bad as a lot of people make it out to be.

"As a student, try to be wise about these diets," Corwin said. "If they recommend eliminating entire groups of foods, be cautious and suspicious. A well-balanced diet is what humans are designed for, and I would encourage students to recognize that our bodies are very, very good at dealing with a wide variety of foods."

According to Borkowska, making drastic changes to a diet in general is not an effective or sustainable way to see long-term results. "You need to make small, meaningful changes over time," she recommended. "If you're a college student and you eat a lot of pizza, you can' t say you're never going to eat pizza again. That's ridiculous, and it would be a horrible world if no one ever ate pizza again."

Advice for drinking?

"Watch your calories," recommended Kris-Etherton. "There are lower-calorie drinks like light beers and wine. One glass of wine can have about 100 calories as opposed to long island iced teas that can have 800 calories."

"If you are going to consume alcoholic beverages, don't drink soda," said Borkowska. "Swap ginger ale and coke for seltzer. Add a lemon. Don't drink margaritas because they are all sugar. A margarita could easily be 600 calories. Avoid sugar-laden beverages, avoid sodas as mixers and avoid beer. With every alcoholic beverage you have, you should have a glass of water."

"Moderation is key, which isn't always the easiest for college students," Hendricks added. "Wine probably would be best. If you're drinking dry red wine, you'll get the heart benefits from the antioxidants."

Is the bad rap for campus dining halls warranted?

"In general, the dining commons are fine. They have good, healthy choices," said Borkowska. "You can take hand fruit with you out the door and save that snack for later. They also do a good job of creating portions so that they're not too big.

"But, like any stressed out college student, it's a hard decision to make," she continued. "One of the big problems that I see is that students wait until they're starving to eat something. If you walk into the dining commons and you haven't eaten for 12 hours, chances are you're not going to make the best nutritional decisions. The stress and busy lifestyles of college students can hinder or inhibit their abilities to make the best choices, even if great options are in every dining hall."

As Penn State's Auxiliary and Business Services dietitian, Hendricks is aware of the university's efforts to offer a large variety of healthy options for students. "We have some items that we run on a regular basis that are part of our commitment to improving nutrition," she said. "We have salad and fruit bars, hot vegetables -- and it's not just steamed frozen broccoli -- it's fresh brussels sprouts, fresh kale and fresh bok choy. We're also trying to cut back portions, because it is an all-you-can-eat concept. We want people to be able to try things without going overboard."

Top tips for weight management?

"One of the big things we teach in nutrition classes is that you shouldn't wait until you're starving to eat because you will consume more calories than you would otherwise," said Borkowska. "Everybody does it, but because college students are so new to their environment, they're more prone to it."

According to Dr. Barbara Rolls, Helen A. Guthrie chair of nutritional sciences and bestselling author, lower calorie, higher nutrient density is what's important when making meal choices. Rolls' Volumetrics diet, which focuses on satiety, was rated number six last month on the US News Best Weight-Loss Diets of 2015 list.

"People tend to eat a pretty consistent weight and volume of food," she said. "Reducing the density of calories in that volume will help you eat less. It's the calories per bite that's important to focus on. Consuming a usual portion of fewer calories is the way to do that. Add lots of fruits and vegetables to your diet because they are mostly water.

"People can still eat foods they enjoy, but can lower the density," Rolls continued. "For example, when eating a sandwich, instead of using cheese and mayonnaise on white bread, use a lower fat meat, bulk it up with your favorite vegetables, substitute mustard for mayonnaise and use whole grain or whole wheat bread. You'll probably end up with a bigger sandwich by weight with half the calories.

"Anytime that you choose foods, you can make these easy tweaks and keep eating the foods that you love. It's important to make changes that make sense. I want people to think of weight management as healthy eating," said Rolls.

Borkowska recommended trying to stick with whole foods. "Your plate should be 50 percent fruits and vegetables -- and not butter-ridden broccoli, but something sautéed. Avoid animal fats like butter, lards, cheeses and creams and replace them with plant fats such as olive oil and corn oil."

According to Kris-Etherton, minimizing late night snacking may be an effective strategy. "Many weight loss counselors do recommend stopping eating after dinner," she said. "It's a very effective strategy for a lot of people. Having said that however, there is all sorts of evidence that speaks to six meals a day. It's really all about controlling calories."

Peanut butter -- healthy student snack staple?

"It's fabulous! It's such a healthy food," said Corwin. "When you're eating whole foods you eat peanuts, and peanut butter is just ground up peanuts. It's a great food. But you have to watch your calories."

"The nut literature is amazing," added Kris-Etherton. "There's more and more research coming out showing the health benefits of tree nuts and peanuts in terms of weight control, cardiovascular disease risk factors and diabetes."

"It's an unsaturated fat coming from the nuts, which is good," added Hendricks. "Saturated fats come from animal sources like red meats, cheese, high fat dairy, whole milk and ice cream. You can certainly incorporate peanut butter into a healthy diet, especially if you're having it replace less healthy saturated or trans fats."

Borkowska recommended buying brands of peanut butter that you mix together yourself. "If you actually read the nutrition label, brands like Jif and Skippy have a lot of added sugars," she said. "There could be a lot of saturated fats and added fats -- whereas the natural one, even if it's more caloric, contains healthier calories."