Making healthy food choices in college

By Tabatha Blacksmith

Christopher Brand, M.S., and Sarah Cabbage, Ph.D., professors of nutrition at South Puget Sound Community College, said that half of each meal should be vegetables and fruits. Grains (preferably whole), lean protein, small amounts of healthy fats and discretionary calories should make up the other half of each meal, they said.

Cabbage said that most Americans get plenty of simple sugar-based carbohydrates in their diets, but they need to include whole grains and more fruits and vegetables, which provide fiber and nutrients. Brand recommended that students eat vegetables at every meal, and a wide variety overall.

According to Brand, a recent study in England found a correlation between happiness and eating seven servings of fruits or vegetables a day. He added that this is good news for students because fruits and vegetables are some of the easiest foods to prepare and take with you. Apples, bananas, pears, carrots, and snow peas are just a few highly portable options.

Students who are short on time can find pre-packaged servings of vegetables and fruits at most supermarkets, although these are more expensive than their fresh counterparts. Vegetables that require cooking can be blanched at home. Dipping sauces, such as small amounts of salad dressing, can add flavor to fresh vegetables.

Both teachers said they recommend students following their bodies’ cues over the clock when timing their meals.

“You should eat when you’re hungry,” said Brand. If a full meal is infeasible, he advised eating something to take the edge off hunger.

“If you let yourself get too hungry, you make poor choices. You’ll grab the first thing that leaps out of the fridge at you,” Cabbage said, “and that’s not usually the healthiest choice.”

Neither teacher said skipping breakfast was a good idea. Cabbage said that different people have different eating strategies, but that studies show people who eat breakfast regularly tend to have more energy during the day. She said students need energy to study. She said the brain functions poorly if it gets too little glucose, which comes primarily from carbohydrates.

“A lot of people still don’t eat breakfast…It needs more emphasis,” said Brand. He added, “Even in my classes I find…that half of the class didn’t eat breakfast that day. They all say, ‘I don’t have time.’”

Cabbage suggested oatmeal or a high fiber cold cereal and fruit or berries as good, portable breakfast options. She said eggs can keep you full but should be eaten in moderation. People with high cholesterol or heart disease may want to limit their eggs to egg whites, she said.

Cabbage recommended using margarine without saturated or hydrogenated fats. “Much of nutrition is ‘don’t go crazy.’ Everything in moderation,” said Cabbage.

Brand encouraged students to eat a breakfast with protein in it. A breakfast of pure carbohydrates gets metabolized too quickly, making students hungry again a few hours later, he said. A protein source, such as an egg, and some complex carbohydrates (e.g. whole grains, root vegetables, beans) is ideal.

Beans rolled up inside a whole grain tortilla are a complete protein source with good fiber and complex carbohydrates, he said.

“Smoothies are good because you can easily put protein into them,” he said. Smoothies made with fresh or frozen fruit are portable and give students the benefits of both fruit and protein.

Cabbage said a sandwich on whole-grain bread with fruit on the side can be a good lunch choice, but she said to watch the sodium content of deli meat and limit fatty condiments such as mayonnaise. Even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are acceptable choices as long as they are not loaded with fillings. Brand cautioned students to avoid cheap peanut butter made outside of the U.S., which often has traces of a carcinogenic substance called aflatoxin.

If students are really pressed for time, Brand and Cabbage recommended making large batches of food and storing them in the refrigerator so they can be eaten for breakfast or lunch throughout the week.

Cabbage suggested flash-frozen/steam-fresh bags of vegetables, noting that the vitamin loss from freezing food is minimal, with the exception of vitamin C. Some prepared food has gotten healthier, but check the nutrition label for sodium and saturated fat, she said. The food in the natural/organic food aisle tends to be made with better ingredients and minimal processing, she said. Planning meals and snacks makes for good food choices later on, she said.

Cabbage recommended that students use the Super Tracker on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s USDA ChooseMyPlate website at to track what they eat and to determine where they need to improve based on individual nutrition and weight-loss goals.

The program is free and based upon USDA guidelines. There are also a variety of free smartphone apps available to help students track their nutritional information.

Individual water consumption needs vary, but it turns out that we may be getting more water than we think if we’re eating well. “We actually get quite a lot of water from our food,” said Cabbage. Fruit is a particularly good source, she said. She added, “The important thing is to pay attention to your body.”

Brand said, “It’s important to understand that the water that is in soup, the water that is in coffee, the water that is in fruit, the water that is in any kind of gravy or anything like that, all counts.” Even beer is mostly water. “You’re getting quite a bit of water, maybe not enough, but quite a bit,” he added.

“I like my food to taste good,” said Brand. “I don’t want to suffer because of my diet. I don’t want my diet to be a punishment to me. For one thing, I don’t believe that anybody who’s trying to lose weight can sustain an unpleasant experience…and, when you stop, that’s all going to come right back. On the other hand, if you start having a lifestyle, and a food style that you like, if it’s healthy, you can do that for the rest of your life…You want to select and develop a lifestyle and the food style that you can sustain,” he said.