Food for Thought
By tara gidus
November 17, 2010
Contrary to popular belief, leftover pizza and diet coke do not a balanced meal make (not even if it’s veggie pizza). you may be on your way to becoming a starving college kid, but you don’t have to be a dumb starving college kid. Here are some practical ways to start eating smart.
WHEN IT COMES TO NUTRITION, WHERE DO COLLEGE KIDS, PARTICULARLY INCOMING FRESHMEN, MESS UP?
Because Mom isn’t there anymore to tell you to eat breakfast, you’ll go to class bleary-eyed and hungry. One of the biggest mistakes is not eating enough early in the day, then loading up later in the day. That’s not giving you the best energy and brain fuel, and it can potentially lead to weight gain. If you’re going to class without any fuel in your body, then you’re not going to be as alert in class and able to concentrate as well.
COULD OVEREATING OR EATING UNHEALTHY FOODS BEFORE STUDYING AFFECT YOUR ABILITY TO THINK CLEARLY?
It could. Really, what you eat can determine quite a bit. Eating high-sugar, high-carb foods can lead to having a spike in your energy, then a drop in your energy, making it difficult to concentrate. Overeating puts you into a sluggish “food coma” where you’re sluggish and not alert—you want to take a nap instead of studying.
ARE LARGE AMOUNTS OF CAFFEINE A QUICK FIX FOR ENERGY?
Caffeine is what I call self-energy. It’s going to make you feel more alert, but you’re not necessarily going to have more physical energy. Energy drinks have a lot of sugar, so again, you’re getting that spike in energy and you might feel really good for half an hour, but then you hit this drop in energy because the sugar gets in your system just as quickly as it gets out of your system. You get this spike in your blood sugar then this drop in your blood sugar, so you’re left feeling fatigued and unable to concentrate again. So what do you do? You have another one. I would prefer people to just have food—small amounts more frequently and lower glycemic food so you’re not getting the spike of energy and then the drop. Instead, you get more sustained energy. You can have some caffeine. I’m not against caffeine, I just wouldn’t use it as your primary fuel to stay awake. Of course proper sleep is important, too. College students aren’t getting enough sleep because they stay up late, have early classes and may not have time for a nap. Getting sleep is going to help with energy, too.
WHAT ARE SOME “BRAIN FOOD” ALTERNATIVES TO JUNK FOODS?
For snacks, I follow the glycemic index. The glycemic index is basically how quickly your blood sugar goes up and how quickly it falls in response to eating a certain food. So if you have pretzels, bread sticks and cookies—that is going to give you a high glycemic content and your energy will spike and then drop. So what you want is low glycemic food which has either fiber or proteins in it. Nuts would be a good example of a low glycemic snack. You could have some almonds, trail mix or even a bowl of cereal, because the milk has protein which will bring the glycemic index down. You could have a half a sandwich. Just take a piece of bread, throw some turkey on it, fold it over and that’s going to be better energy and help you control your portions as well. You could have a yogurt, cottage cheese, beef jerky or fresh fruit. Most fresh fruit has fiber in it, which makes it lower glycemic. So an apple, banana or pear, those are all going to be good examples of lower glycemic foods. Also, look for nutrition bars with fiber and protein in them.
HOW GOOD ARE CHEAPER FOODS LIKE RAMEN NOODLES?
I know it’s difficult on a budget. I mean, everyone right now is limiting their budget. I work with a lot of athletes on the Orlando Magic, so I look at food as fuel, and a student isn’t much different than an athlete—your sport is school. Concentrating on what you’re doing, being able to focus on those lectures, focus on your homework—all those things are very important. You always hear, “That’s bad for me,” or “Oh, don’t eat that because it has too much sodium. Don’t eat that because it has too much sugar.” Then you end up walking out of the grocery store emptyhanded because everything is bad for you. Instead, look at food as fuel and ask, what does this food have in it that’s good for me? Ramen noodles are very cheap, but there is nothing good in them. That’s not to say you can’t ever have them, but if you are living off of them, you’re only getting fat, salt and white flour, which has very little nutritional value. If you’re going to have ramen noodles, add some chicken or some frozen vegetables to at least round out the meal and add some nutrition. Or, you can just choose not to do the ramen noodles. Even though they are cheap, it may be wasted money if they are not giving you the proper energy. You know, a loaf of bread isn’t expensive. And whole wheat bread isn’t any more expensive than white bread. You can get brown rice in a box, it’s cheap. Canned beans are cheap. You can get some really inexpensive food that is actually quite healthy. I hate to use budget as an excuse. You may not be able to afford the greatest of the healthy foods, but you can at least use whatever food budget you have and spend it in the right place.
HOW SHOULD STUDENTS PREPARE FOR TESTS WITHOUT GOING OVERBOARD WITH CAFFEINE AND OTHER ENERGY SUPPLEMENTS?
I would say that is when nutrition becomes the most important. Make sure that you have breakfast and lunch. Make sure you don’t load yourself down with fats and huge meals that make you so tired you can’t study or test well. When I think of brain foods, there are lots of things that come to mind. Fruits and vegetables give you so many of the antioxidants and phytochemicals and vitamins and minerals that you actually need. Lean meats can have a lot of vitamin B that is part of the energy pathway that the body needs. And complex carbs—if you don’t have enough carbs, you could be really low in energy and not be able to concentrate. The biggest brain food that I can think of is omega-3 fat. That’s going to be salmon or fish oil tablets. I think it’s great if a college student would just take a couple fish oil tablets every day. That may help with brain health and being able to concentrate a little bit better. Unfortunately, a college student’s diet is simply not going to be perfect. But I think taking a mutlivitamin or an omega-3 supplement can help. You may want to take some extra calcium if you’re not drinking enough milk. But I don’t think you have to have a laundry list of supplements.