Do College Students Get Enough (Nutrients) to Eat?

Thanksgiving week is often the first time parents get to see their college-age children after they leave for the fall semester. They often come home not just with a knapsack filled with dirty laundry and a serious sleep deficit, but with the possible beginnings of nutrient deficiencies. It is unlikely that the student will have symptoms of scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) or iron-deficiency anemia. But, at the very least, many will have been following a nutritionally questionable diet.

Worried about the eating habits of a young relative who is completing his first semester as a freshman, I queried him about the nutritional adequacy of the foods provided in his college’s dining room. The food was acceptable, I was told, although since he was a vegetarian, he couldn’t comment on the meat dishes. His problem, common to so many, was a schedule that included long afternoons in a physics or computer laboratory causing him to emerge for supper  after the dining room had closed. Then his only options were sandwiches and fries at the college-owned café that was open much later, or pizza from a place down the street.

But he mentioned that his friends teased him about his food choices because when he did eat in the dining room, he always had a salad and fruit (his mother would be proud). Asked what his friends usually ate, he quickly tossed out,  “Mac and cheese, pizza, hamburgers, onion rings, and soda. They eat terribly. They never eat vegetables or fruit.”  Knowing that he rarely drank milk and ate yogurt infrequently, I was happy to know that his calcium needs were being supplied by the chocolate milk he drank after long runs.

His perception about the  poor food choices of his friends has been confirmed by many studies of the food habits of college students. The reasons are pretty obvious. Breakfast is often skipped in favor of sleep, and often lunch and dinner may be obtained from food trucks, nearby pizza shops, fast-food restaurants, and snack shops rather than the college dining room. This is particularly true if meal tickets can be used at food trucks, coffee shops and other nearby restaurants.  One consequence, however, is a minimal consumption of fruits, vegetables, and often dairy products. Dieting, especially following  diets  that arbitrary eliminate various food groups (i.e. paleo, keto, cleanses), may also cause inadequate nutrient intake, although this is hardly confined to college campuses.

As the article by Abraham, Noriega and Shin point out (“College students eating habits and knowledge of nutritional requirements,” Survey of attitudes and eating habits  Abraham S, Noriega B, Shin J, J of Nutrition and Human Health 2018 ; 2:13-17), college students often know very little about their nutrient requirements, believe that food additives rather than high calorie content is the reason fast foods should be avoided, and either disregard or know very little about the relationship of nutrient intake to health.

Alerting this population to the consequences of inadequate nutrient intake is a mission that must wait its turn behind education on the perils of nicotine, excessive alcohol and unprotected sex. Not surprisingly, it is a subject rarely discussed, except perhaps by coaches who realize the importance of adequate nutrient intake for their players.  (“Web-based nutrition education for college students: Is it feasible?” Cousineau T, Franko D, Ciccazzo M, et al Eval Program Plann. 2006; 29: 23-33) Male college students, according to the article by Cousineau, Frano, Ciccazzo et al, are particularly uninformed about what they should or should not be eating. But all college students seem to know little about food labels, appropriate number of servings from various food groups, the relationship between calorie intake and energy metabolism, the need for fiber, vitamins and mineral rich foods, and indeed, what happens to food after it is ingested.

One wonders if the ready acceptance of misinformation about diets, effects of certain foods on cognition, inflammation, the intestinal tract, mood, and energy is not a consequence of college age and older adults knowing so little about basic physiology. Often the nutritional information is about as accurate as the belief that the world is flat. Yet where and when does the college student, and indeed anyone in the population, obtain some basic facts about how the body uses what is being consumed?

Weight gain is common in college, especially during the first year, due to a combination of lack of exercise, stress, too little sleep, and perhaps too much pizza and beer. Students are especially vulnerable to this when midterms and final exams approach. Somehow the message that good nutrition and adequate sleep might help cognition and mental performance, has not been able to offset the constant snacking and staying up all night that characterize these periods of intense study.

A simple solution to possible inadequate nutrient intake is a daily vitamin supplement or a vitamin supplement that also contains calcium and iron for those who avoid dairy products and foods rich in iron (such as red meat.) The vitamin supplement is, of course, no substitute for those fruits and vegetables, and dairy products the college attender should be eating. But until that happens, a chewable vitamin or a pill may be the best solution.

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