Eating a balanced and nutritious diet is easier, and tastier, than you think. The number-one secret to good nutrition is balance. Protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats are the essential sources of energy—calories—that fuel our bodies. Vegetables and fruits round out the picture with necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber, not to mention taste!
For adult learners pursuing a degree, the trick is often getting organized enough to plan out healthy meals. Colleen R., a 23-year-old mother of two youngsters, is studying medical coding at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, while working a job as well. She sits down on Sunday nights and plans out every family meal for the week.
“Planning ahead helps me save money as well because I’m not buying food that I won’t use or that will go bad and I’ll have to throw away,” she says.
Jessica B., a 32-year-old student at Northern Maine Community College, also charts out the weekly meals in her household of three kids, plus her fiancé. She jots down each meal on a big calendar posted on the family refrigerator.
Dvan H., a 43-year-old mother of four who is studying social work and human services at Southside Virginia Community College in Alberta, says that there are countless recipes for cooking healthy meals and she gets new ideas from various magazines. She likes to cook easy-to-bake dishes that don’t require much oil such as a simple baked chicken or bluefish with tomato sauce.
No matter what type of food you like, understanding the basics of balanced nutrition will help you maintain your energy and health.
We need protein for energy and to build lean muscle mass. It’s also a source of vitamins B, E, iron, zinc, and magnesium—among others. Most Americans get plenty, if not too much, protein, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). What does this mean?
- The average female college student needs about 5 ounces (about 142 grams) of protein a day.
- Male students need about 6 ounces (170 grams).
For reference, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a young man could get all the protein he needs for the day by consuming the following:
- 1 cup of milk;
- 3 ounces of meat;
- 1 cup of beans; and
- 8 ounces of yogurt.
There are as many sources of protein as there are culinary tastes. Lean poultry, beef, fish, and pork are readily available, as are beans, legumes, and lentils. Nuts have lots of protein (they are in the legume family) and also healthy fats. Tofu and tempeh, both made from soybeans, are an excellent, versatile source, as is wheat gluten, often sold as the Asian ingredient “seitan.”
Learn more about non-meat protein sources
Lean meat, poultry, and fish are great sources of protein. You can, however, get all your protein through non-meat sources such as beans, peas, tofu, wheat gluten, and nuts.
The Vegetarian Resource Group is a great source of information for vegetarians and vegans, but meat-eaters will also find lots to learn.
Visit their Web site here: https://www.vrg.org/.
When meats and other protein sources are baked, broiled, stir-fried in little oil, or grilled, they retain their taste and texture, and don’t soak up additional fat.
Carbohydrates are another source of energy, but your body can process them more quickly than protein and use the calories right away.
Carbs get a bad rap: they are often portrayed as the dieter’s enemy. It is true that if you consume more carbohydrates than you need, they get stored as fat. However, complex, whole-grain carbohydrates are an important staple of your diet. They provide quick energy to your muscles, help you to feel full, contain fiber, and carry many essential nutrients. As the Harvard School of Public Health says, “Choose good carbs, not no carbs.”
Much of the nutrition in grains is carried in the outer hull. As a result, refined flours and grains, which have had the hull removed, have fewer nutrients than those in their whole state.
More suggestions of whole grains
Try some of these whole grains for a change of pace from bread and regular pasta:
- Steel-cut oats
- Kamut and other “ancient grains”
- Brown and wild rices
- Whole wheat couscous
Keep in mind that some starchy vegetables—like potatoes, carrots, and lima beans—also have carbs. Fruits do, too.
Fruits & Veggies
Fruits and vegetables get the most space on your plate because they are loaded with vitamins and minerals that do everything from helping to form red blood cells and build genetic material (vitamin B12 and iron) to helping you resist infection and heal more quickly (vitamin C). Other vitamins assist your body in turning protein and carbohydrates into energy. Fruits and vegetables are also an excellent source of fiber, important for digestion and reducing blood cholesterol.
Many people think they don’t like vegetables, simply because they’ve only had them canned and don’t realize how vibrant, varied, and pleasing they can be. Add color and rich nutritional value to your diet by eating plenty of dark leafy greens. Each color family has different vitamins and minerals, so build a rainbow on your plate! You really can’t eat too many fruits and vegetables.
More veggie based ideas on color
Here are varied ideas:
Orange: carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, pumpkin
Yellow: bell peppers, squash, cauliflower, bananas, yellow/green apples
Blue: blueberries, boysenberries, red cabbage
Red: raspberries, cranberries, beets, grapes
Green: arugula, chard, collards, spinach, kale, broccoli, celery
While fresh, locally grown foods are best, stocking up on frozen fruits and vegetables can be cheaper and will allow them to last longer. Colleen R. keeps a large bag of mixed frozen veggies in her freezer for quick stir-fries. Crops that are freshly picked, then flash frozen, retain their flavor, texture, and nutritional value. In fact, frozen fruits and veggies are generally as good for you as fresh.
Stick with products that contain only the vegetables or fruits you want. Many options come sauced, buttered, or have sugar or other sweeteners added. This is especially true if you opt for canned ingredients. Canned fruit can be packed in water or fruit juice, but is often immersed in a thick sugar syrup instead. Vegetables are often sealed in a salty brine. This makes them very high in sodium, and quite mushy.
Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in Massachusetts, points out that one good canned option is vegetable, bean, or lentil soup. Low-sodium varieties are tasty, filling, and easy to prepare.
Salge Blake suggests smart snacking as another way to pack in veggies. “Your goal is to get about 4.5 cups of fruit and vegetables a day. A [woman’s] fist is about a cup. [Men’s] fists are more like 2 cups,” she notes. For example, grab a handful of trimmed carrots or make a salad of green beans, red peppers, corn kernels, chopped kale, and some squeezed lemon to tote to class.
On the Go
Tons of fruits and vegetables were born to travel. Bananas have their own container, apples never seem to bruise, and carrot and celery sticks (or baby carrots) will last all day. Try munching on grapes, blueberries, or grape tomatoes during class (they’re quiet!)
Judy Shepherd, director of counseling at Southside Virginia Community College, recommends packing a container with slices of apples or oranges and walnuts. She adds that when her commuting students pack a snack, they’re not tempted to grab unhealthy fast food. “So many students eat just French fries for their dinner,” says Shepherd.
Jessica B. likes to take turkey, lettuce, and tomato in a whole wheat wrap to fuel her while on campus. She also brings vegetables like string beans and carrots for snacking.
Fats: Not All Are Equal
Fat is actually an essential macronutrient; we need it to maintain our cell membranes, provide cushioning for our organs, and absorb vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. “Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health, and they’re good for healthy skin and hair, too,” says Salge Blake. Fats are also extremely dense sources of energy, so a little goes a long way.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats come from plant sources, like seeds and nuts, olive oil, and avocados. They are also in fish, especially salmon.
Saturated fats are considered unhealthy. Sometimes called “solid fats,” they come from animal products and contribute to high levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Examples include milk fats, butter, and excess fat on meat.
Sneaky names for fat
- Coconut or palm oil
- Palm kernel oil
- Tallow, suet, or shortening
- Ghee (clarified butter; often found in Indian cooking)
- Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oil
Trans-fats, which sound like they are plant-based oils, are also unhealthy. Don’t be fooled by ingredients such as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Taste the Rainbow
Eating a wide variety of foods is the best way to ensure that you get enough of all the different vitamins and minerals you need. Salge Blake points to the USDA’s MyPlate: “It’s very colorful, to remind you to be as colorful as possible in your food choices,” she says. Just make sure your foods are naturally colorful, not artificially altered.
Pass the Salt
Go for color, but avoid white on your plate; excessive salt and sugar can sabotage healthy eating. While most people think sodium is something only older folks need to be concerned with, King says young people should also be conscious of salt, especially if there is a family history of high blood pressure. “Processed food is high in sodium,” agrees Salge Blake. “It’s important to moderate your intake. [If] you acquire a taste for salt, it becomes harder to cut back as you age,” she cautions.
Don’t Be Too Sweet
Your body gets all the sugar it needs from fruit. Plus, the body breaks carbohydrates down into sugars, so there’s plenty in the bloodstream if you’re eating a balanced diet.
Of course, who doesn’t enjoy sweet foods occasionally? Cookies, ice cream, and cake are all okay in moderation. There are also lots of ways to create treats with processed-sugar substitutes, such as fresh and dried fruit as well as whole-fruit juices. (Look for ideas in the December 2012 issue of Student Health 101.)
A list of the many names for sugar on ingredient labels
- Corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Sucrose, glucose, and fructose
- Cane juice
- Anhydrose dextrose, crystal dextrose, and dextrin
Look out for slyly sugary foods. Fruit drinks often have lots of extra; if the label doesn’t say 100 percent juice, sugar or artificial sweeteners have been added.
Colleen R. says that sodas are forbidden in her house because of their high sugar-content and for dessert, her family eats fruit or a healthy zucchini bread.
In fact, as Shepherd says, “I’ve talked to so many people who have lost weight simply by [not] drinking soda.” But she cautions against diet sodas, which she says can increase your appetite. She advises students to drink water or half water and half juice, or even try flavored waters. “Water can fill you up, too, so you don’t feel hungry during times when you need to wait to get a healthy meal,” she says.
Many reduced-fat products are sugar culprits, too. Companies add sugar to enhance texture and make low-fat foods seem more satisfying.
“Who goes to the dining hall with measuring cups and a scale?” Salge Blake asks. She points out that MyPlate and other tools (like the Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate) make it easy to visualize how to fill up your dish. Using a smaller container can help, too. People tend to eat more when they use a large plate.
With essential nutrition information in hand, you can craft meals that are simple to prepare, budget-conscious, delicious, and great for your health.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins.
- Experiment with proteins from non-meat sources like beans and nuts.
- Break up the monotony of pasta and white rice with alternatives like quinoa and couscous.
- Make your plate a rainbow. The color of fruits and vegetables tells you a lot about their nutritional value.
- Limit salt and sugar intake and drink plenty of water.
- Try varied cuisines and food-prep methods and alter recipes to make them healthier.
- Test your nutrition smarts
Get help or find out more
Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate
Dietary Guidelines for Americans
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
The Vegetarian Resource Group
West Virginia University’s Nutrition Labels Information