Battle of the Bulge

Eat, drink, and be healthy—even on a student’s budget and schedule

We asked Lauren Petr-Cromer, an MTSU instructor of nutrition and food sciences, a few questions about the college lifestyle that might help MTSU students make better decisions about what they put into their bodies. Petr-Cromer was recently named Young Dietitian of the Year by the Tennessee Dietetic Association.

What is the typical college student ingesting (food or drink) that is the most damaging as it relates to his or her health?

Super-sized anything! Aside from lack of exercise, portion distortion is the biggest contributor to obesity. We all need to relearn how to eat or drink the correct portion sizes of food and beverages. A half-cup serving of full-fat ice cream occasionally is not going to pack on the pounds, but a 2- or 3-scoop ice cream cone eventually will. Peanut butter is an excellent topping with whole grain toast, but two tablespoons contain almost 190 calories; those peanut butter to-go cups contain four tablespoons, or about 400 calories! I challenge students to start ordering the tall latte at Starbucks rather than the venti—12 ounces is a much more appropriate beverage serving than 20 ounces, especially for a beverage that contains caffeine.

What are some semi-painless things that a college student could do from an eating perspective that would rapidly improve his or her health?

Eat more vegetables, and drink plain water! Most people don’t mind eating their fruits, but getting in 2½ to 3 cups a day of a variety of vegetables can be a challenge for many college students. Yet vegetables, depending on how they are cooked, are relatively low in calories, contain lots of fiber to make you feel full, and can provide loads of phyto-nutrients that may prevent disease. We still don’t know with 100 percent certainty that eating enough fruits and vegetables will help prevent chronic diseases; however, with the research that is available, I’m definitely eating my daily servings. As for the water, plain tap water is what I recommend. It’s regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency for safety and is calorie-free, super-inexpensive, better for the environment when compared to bottled, and doesn’t contain anything artificial. Being well hydrated is not only good for the kidneys and other bodily functions; it also helps control hunger and fatigue. Sugar-free flavored waters, to me, are just a slightly healthier substitute for a soft drink—they still train us to desire sweet-tasting beverages.

Given that college students are constantly on the go, don’t have time for a sit-down breakfast, and often don’t have a lot of money for food, what is a reasonable breakfast for a college student to eat?

My favorite breakfast, and I think the healthiest, is cooked oatmeal and fruit. A large container of off-brand, quick-cooking or regular rolled oats is less than $3 and contains enough oatmeal to last at least two weeks. Fix ½ cup of dry oats based on the package instructions and mix with banana slices, raisins, diced apples, or whatever fruit is on sale or available, and you have an excellent breakfast for probably less than a dollar. Plus it is microwavable!

Take it with you to class by packing it in a to-go container and don’t forget a spoon. I avoid purchasing the individual flavored packages or cups of oatmeal, as those are more expensive per ounce, pack in less fiber, and provide more calories from sugars.

College students often rely on coffee and energy drinks to keep them going through the day and night. What are some healthier alternatives to give them the energy they need?

Sleep, regular exercise, and, as I mentioned earlier, adequate hydration are my recommendations. I remember thinking that sleep was overrated when I was in college, but studies show again and again that your performance is negatively impacted when you don’t get enough sleep. I tell my students an extra hour of sleep might do them better than an extra hour of cramming for a test. Exercise is also important to fight fatigue. A study released in 2006 supported findings that sedentary people had improved energy levels when they started a regular exercise routine. So instead of reaching for a Red Bull or coffee to boost you awake, maybe take a walk.

Is late-night eating really that bad for college students?

The reason late-night eating is so bad is because it usually consists of greasy fast food or sweet indulgences. If you still have calories to spare at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter when you eat. You won’t gain weight just because it is after nine before you eat. However, if you have already consumed enough calories for the day, then the 800 calories from a 10-piece chicken nugget meal with medium fries is just extra calories. If you did this four times in a month, you would gain about a pound that month. If you did this all school year, then you would be about 10 pounds heavier than when you started in August.

Petr-Cromer has worked as a dietitian manager with a skilled nursing facility and as a clinical dietitian at a diabetes weight management clinic. Her résumé also includes experience as a dietary and kitchen manager who developed meal plans and assessed nutritional needs of patients. She is also a preceptor/mentor with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Dietetic Internship Program.