Healthy Habits Student Guide to Nutrition and Fitness Resources
Shari Portnoy, MPH, RD, CFT specializes in nutrition, food labeling, food safety, and calorie and recipe analysis. She has appeared as an expert on CNN, the Dr. Oz Show, and the Anderson Cooper Show. She is a published author in the Wall Street Journal, Miami Herald, and New York Times.
Bonnie Y. Modugno, MS, RD, is an author, consultant and speaker in Santa Monica, CA specializing in weight management, metabolic health, and sports nutrition for children, adolescents, and adults. She has written for HuffPost and previously worked with UCLA Extension and Pepperdine University.
Nutrition and fitness are vitally important for the growing bodies of children, adolescents and young adults. Never has this been truer than during the last few decades, when the rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health problems have become more prevalent among younger people. Obesity is at the root of most of these health concerns.
Between 1971 and 2011, the number of children with obesity more than tripled.
The problem seems to be much more severe in children between the ages of 12 and 19, with obesity rates increasing from 6.1 percent to a whopping 18.4 percent from 1971 to 2010.
A study through the Harvard School of Health found that if the epidemic continues at this pace, nine percent of all preschoolers across the globe will be considered overweight or obese – that’s over 60 million kids.
The problem continues into young adulthood, with almost one quarter of all college students gaining significant weight during their first semester, according to a 2009 study through Utah State University. Campus student services tend to focus on other issues facing young adults, such as substance abuse and sexual behavior; however, very little attention has been paid to the obesity epidemic and rise of health problems among those of college age. Find out what schools are doing to address the issue and learn how students can be supported in living a healthy lifestyle.
Obesity and the American Student
The CDC reports that in 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Blame for the obesity epidemic has been placed on numerous issues, from lack of exercise offered in schools to questionable nutritional makeup of the typical school lunch. On the K-12 level, some of the main issues in regards to childhood obesity include:
- Lack of physical education courses and exercise
Two decades ago, physical education in all levels of K-12 was expected and even mandatory. Today, 4 percent of elementary schools, 7 percent of middle schools and only 2 percent of high schools require or offer daily physical education classes that last for an entire school year. Amazingly, 22 percent of schools don’t require physical education at all. This lack of exercise possibilities during the school day could definitely be a factor in the growth of obesity and related problems.
- Vending machines offering sub-standard nutrition
Many schools now offer vending machines for students to take advantage of during breaks, between classes or at lunchtime. Those vending machines are all too often just like those you might find anywhere, filled with candy, sodas and other empty-calorie snacks. Many students choose to rely on vending machine food rather than choose healthier options at lunch.
- A misunderstanding of which foods are actually healthy
Health-conscious groups have called into question the problem of added sugars, high sodium and lack of nutrients in a typical school meal. In fact, some common sense rules have been broken over the years in order to serve kids what they want, even if it’s not as healthy as it could be: For example, for the purposes of school lunches, tomato paste is considered a vegetable – making fat-laden pizza a viable lunch option for students in grades K-12.
- An inability for some students to afford healthy foods
Though the National School Lunch Program offers free and reduced lunches to 31 million students each year, there are some families who fall through the cracks – those who don’t make enough to qualify for the subsidies, but don’t make enough to afford the ever-growing lunch prices. The result is often a student packing a lunch that doesn’t contain enough of the most essential vitamins and nutrients, but is higher in calories – or a student who doesn’t eat as much as they need to, given the lack of funds to afford a full lunch.
For college students, the weight gain often known affectionately as the “Freshman 15” can be caused by a variety of factors that are unique to those entering the world of higher education. These often include lifestyle changes that can wreck havoc on the body of a young adult, including late night eating, fast food and delivery to dorm rooms, skipping meals, poor sleep habits, unhealthy snacks, and for some, excessive consumption of alcohol.
In addition, the college lifestyle might change a student’s rate of physical activity. Though most college campuses offer a wide variety of intramural sports, gym options and other fitness opportunities, many students find that their class load leads them to skip the fitness and focus on studies instead. Some students might also choose to simply hang out with friends and enjoy their transition to college life, and forgo the time they might have spent playing organized sports or hitting the gym.
Whatever the reasons might be, the fact is that students in grades K-12, as well as those on the college level, are facing serious health consequences due to lack of proper nutrition and inadequate exercise. This guide aims to change that. From tips for staying healthy to resources that can help, students can find a wealth of information in these pages – information that might lead them to a much healthier, happier lifestyle.
Childhood and Young Adult Obesity Resources:
- Alliance for a Healthier Generation
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
- Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition
- Healthier Kids Brighter Futures: Childhood Obesity Awareness Month
- Healthy Children: Obesity
- Let’s Move: America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids
- Medline Plus: Obesity in Children
- Obesity Society
Student Food and Fitness in Focus
Students at every grade level face challenges when it comes to nutrition and fitness. Those challenges can lead to serious consequences. Here is a bit of sobering information that drives home the point of how important fitness and nutrition can be at every stage of a student’s growth.
College Nutrition and Wellness
College students have a lot on their minds, and sometimes proper nutrition and exercise doesn’t seem to be a worry for them. But over a matter of months, many college students begin to fall into unhealthy habits, gain the colloquial “Freshman 15,” and stop exercising as much as they used to. Some of the most common problems for nutrition and good health for college students include:
When it comes to money, college can be a real eye-opener. Students now have to budget a bit more carefully than they did when they were living with their parents, and might have many more financial obligations, too. That means a close eye on the money spent, and for some students, money might be tight enough to prevent them from buying fresh produce or other healthy options.
What’s more of a social event – dining on a feast of appetizers at a local restaurant while talking with new friends, or heading to the cafeteria to check out what’s on the menu? Many students find that their social life picks up dramatically during their college years, and that means more eating out, which translates into more calories.
Students who are now juggling a full class load might find it tough to take time out to eat a healthy meal at the cafeteria. It is often much easier to eat on the go, order delivery from a local restaurant for a late dinner, or get together with friends for regular meals at a local hangout. These changes in schedule can also mean students eating meals later in the evening. Students with a very heavy class schedule might find it tough to fit in the time to exercise, too.
Colleges tend to be open season when it comes to alcohol, and many students – even those who are underage – take advantage of that fact. Alcohol contains a great deal of calories, but most students don’t stop to think about the extra calories in that beer or mixed drink. Besides that, alcohol consumption can lead to the desire to snack on salty goodies. The calories can add up quickly.
When putting in hours of study in the library, students might not want to pack everything up and trek across campus to the cafeteria. It’s much easier to simply grab a candy bar and soda from a vending machine. Stockpiles of snacks in dorm rooms can also lead to after-hours munching on things that aren’t filled with the best kind of calories.
Interviewwith Shari Portnoy
Shari Portnoy, MPH, RD, CFT, is a registered dietitian. She formerly worked with Chartwell’s higher education division.
Many colleges offer students the option of “going their own way” with meal plans, or choosing the college food service. Which would you recommend and why?
It depends on the student. It is good way to gain camaraderie with other freshmen but for some, having unlimited options leads to the freshman 15, ie: weight gain.
Students often struggle to eat healthy in college. Do you have any tips that might help?
Don’t eat from your tray until you have everything you want to eat on it. For instance, I see many people eating their sandwich while on the stir-fry line. Start eating when you get to the table.
Look around before you select. The dining halls have many options, people often go to many stations at the same meal. Pick a station for that meal and stick to it.
Don’t drink your calories. Fruit drinks add sugar and calories galore. Opt for water at meals. Since the dining hall has all the food for just one price or one swipe of the card, people want to get their money’s worth so they stack up! Think about it!
What do you see as the biggest hurdle to good nutrition for college students, and how can it be overcome?
The hurdle is that all the stations in a dining hall, sometimes as many as 15, are overwhelming. Students go to many stations per meal and overeat. There is healthy food in the dining hall; there are also sweets and desserts at every meal.
Is there anything else you would like to add about good nutrition for college students?
There are healthy options everywhere. Focus on portion size, amount of food at each meal and not bringing food back to your room
Resources for Fitness and Nutrition Challenges in College
Ready to get back into shape? These resources for college students focus on fitness and nutrition, with an aim to help students stay as healthy as possible during their time on campus.
Intramural SportsThe Challenge:
Students don’t have access to the organized sports they used to play in high school. If they do, perhaps they aren’t good enough to make the more competitive college team, or they are simply burned out on varsity sports.
The school’s campus recreation or intramural department program
Students will gain the ability to play the sports they want without the commitment, time or pressure of varsity sports. A good measure of intense exercise, as well as making new friends during the fun, are two great reasons to continue.
The College Fitness CenterThe Challenge
Students want to get exercise, but do so using facilities not easily available, like a weight room, treadmill, swimming pool, etc. Also, students may not be able to afford a gym membership to a place that offers these facilities.
The school’s fitness center
Students get free or cheap access to a wide range of physical activities, whether it’s using the weight room, swimming in the pool or treadmill. As an added bonus, some schools offer extended hours for their fitness center, so students can fit in their exercise at unusual times.
Fitness ClassesThe Challenge
Students can’t afford to take a fitness class or don’t have the time to drive off campus to attend the class.
The school’s fitness center
Students can enjoy free or cheap access fitness classes that are very close by. Besides that, some fitness classes can be taken as part of the class load, providing the bonus of credit toward graduation.
Athletic TrainersThe Challenge
Students have questions about getting into shape or how to eat right, but won’t or can’t pay for a personal trainer or dietician.
The school’s athletic department
Students get free or cheap consultations with athletic trainers and/or nutritionists that can answer questions about eating right or how to most effectively and safely exercise. They can also have follow-up visits to ensure they are on the right track.
My Food Record (online tool)The Challenge
Students know they aren’t eating as well as they could be, but can’t identify what they’re lacking or what they’re eating too much of. They also want to know exactly how much exercise is needed to burn off extra calories.
Analyzes the nutrition of what the student is eating and provides feedback as to what’s deficient. There is also a calorie burn tool to help determine how much exercise is needed to burn extra calories.
Food on Campus
A few decades ago, campus meal plans included the cafeteria, and possibly an on-campus snack bar. Students had their choice of a wide variety of options, from pasta plates to salads to foods made on the grill, including the cheeseburger staples that most young adults seemed to love most. Breakfast bars filled with cereal and yogurt were the norm, as were the occasional snack fare, including apples and cheese sticks.
But in recent years, many colleges have contracted with fast food companies. This means that students have the choice of campus meals, as well as pizza, burgers, and other not-so-healthy options available through some of today’s most popular fast food chains.
There are some colleges that have chosen to stick to their guns when it comes to the best nutrition possible. Here are a few shining examples:
In 2012, University of Massachusetts launched a salad bar which showed students which ingredients would make the healthiest salad serving. This allows students to choose foods that contain fewer calories and less saturated fat.
Suffolk University offered serving plates with divisions based on the USDA’s MyPlate nutrition recommendations. These plate divisions help students make healthy choices about how much of each type of food they should be eating.
Boston College has a student health-coach program so students can learn about proper nutrition. “Our mission as educators isn’t just in the classroom,” nutritionist Sheila Tucker told the Boston Globe.
Clemson University’s dining halls provide nutrition information for each meal available for students. There are many dish choices that include fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein. The university also has apps available with the nutrition information of all dining hall offerings.
University of Pittsburgh’s dining facilities aim for sustainable options, and more than two-thirds of on-campus students have access to 24 hour fitness centers.
Claremont McKenna College’s dining halls make their meals from scratch and pay attention to portion sizes, only offering portions recommended by USDA guidelines. Meat, produce and dairy are also hormone free, locally produced and humanely raised.
What about students who attend schools that don’t offer these fantastic options? Some schools allow students to choose on their own how they will handle their nutritional needs – they can purchase the campus meal plan, or they can make their own arrangements. Some colleges require students, particularly freshman, to purchase a meal plan if they live in the campus dorms.
It’s easier to stay healthy on campus meal plans than most young adults might think. It all comes down to making the right choices, every time. Here are a few tips to stay healthy on campus meal plans:
Fitness on campus
When students go to college, they have free time outside of class and the freedom to decide how to use it. Besides focusing on required studies and extracurricular activities, there are several options for fitness. All colleges have fitness centers, and most have intramural sports, as well as clubs of all kinds that focus on health – there might be a club for those who love to play volleyball, run, ride bicycles, enjoy Frisbee golf and more.
Just as nutrition may suffer for some who move onto the college campus, so does fitness level. Many students find that they have limited time, or choose to socialize with friends in an exciting new atmosphere, letting their workouts slide for another day. Students who are facing limited finances might choose not to purchase that gym membership, or opt for working at a side job instead of going to the fitness center. However, there are still ways to stay healthy and strong, even when life gets in the way.
Looking for a campus that takes great fitness to heart? The following are examples of schools that have implemented excellent fitness programs and opportunities for students.
Boston College takes recreation seriously with the Outdoor Adventures program, which offers recreational trips, outdoor classes, adventure clinics, and much more. The program is geared toward anyone with an interest in fitness, whether they are thrill-seekers or prefer a more laid-back experience.
University of Redlands in California is home to a massive fitness center, with free admission for all full-time students. Family memberships are available for a reasonable $15 per month, and fitness classes can be taken for college credit.
Berea College in Kentucky offers Seabury Center, almost 107,000 square feet of space for fitness, including three levels with an indoor track, racquetball courts, tennis courts, areas for intramural sports, a large pool and much more.
Ohio State University was named the fittest college in America by Men’s Health, based on the wide variety of fitness options: Four recreational centers, a skate park, a tennis complex, and even virtual game options that get students moving.
College Student Wellness Tips and Advice
Not sure where to begin? These tips offer practical advice for any college student who wants to enhance their nutrition and boost their exercise without sacrificing precious free time.
- Walk everywhere.
Many college campuses are walking-friendly, and in most cases students can easily walk from one side of the campus to the other. Take advantage of this by walking or biking across the campus to every class, meal or event.
- Opt for active social events.
Sitting at a restaurant and talking to friends is a sedentary activity filled with food temptation. Walking around campus with those same friends while sipping on water and snacking on apples is a much better alternative. Seek out activities that allow for a move active social life – literally.
- Choose healthy snacks for the dorm.
If the only snacks available during that midnight study crunch are healthy ones, students are more likely to eat something good. Fresh fruits, crunchy vegetables and small packs of trail mix are all good options.
- Invest in a microwave and small refrigerator.
A small refrigerator stocked with veggies, string cheese, yogurt and skim milk is a good idea, as is a microwave to heat up oatmeal, healthy frozen meals and other goodies that prevent the late-night fast-food run.
- Indulge from time to time.
Choose one event per week to indulge in bad-for-you foods, or choose one night per week to hit up the local restaurant scene with new friends. This one outing can eliminate feelings of deprivation, making it much easier to reach for healthier choices during the week.
- Lay off the alcohol.
All too often, college students are tempted by intoxicating beverages, but rarely do they think of the calories consumed in those mixed drinks, beers and wine. Limiting alcohol consumption is a good idea for many reasons, including cutting calories.
K-12 Nutrition and Wellness
Offering better wellness for students in grades K-12 starts with understanding just what their nutrition should include. What constitutes a sound diet? The majority of what goes on a student’s plate should include fresh fruits and vegetables, followed by breads, rice or other starchy foods. Lean sources of protein, such as beans or chicken, are another necessity. Dairy products, including reduced fat milk and cheese, are also on the list.
Here is a good idea of what a child’s plate should look like.
with Bonnie Y. Modugno
Bonnie Y. Modugno, MS, RD, is a nutrition consultant, author and speaker practicing in Santa Monica, CA.
Much has been discussed about the obesity epidemic in the U.S., especially the frightening increase of obesity-related problems in younger children. How can parents help stop the trend in their own homes?
Parents and family members that focus on health will likely see more beneficial impact than a preoccupation with weight. That’s true for health care practitioners as well. Most conversation about body weight ends up celebrating the problem by placing too much emphasis on body size, or compounding the problem by inducing shame.
Parents can discuss food and eating habits to issues that matter like health, energy, focus, complexion, building muscles, increasing strength and stamina, as well as athletic, academic and/or artistic prowess. In addition practicing food’s rightful place is an excellent platform to build effective self regulation regarding hunger and how much to eat in order to feel satisfied (satiety).
How can we encourage children in grades K-12 to make healthier choices in the school lunch line?
Individual choices don’t seem to make as much different as how the whole meal works. A good enough meal includes enough protein for satiety, adequate carbohydrate (preferably from whole foods like vegetables, fruit, beans and milk) for energy, and some healthy fat to stay satisfied over time.
Too many foods are highly refined even if they enjoy a health halo. Most breakfast cereals, many grain products and snack foods, as well as sweetened teas and sports drinks fall in the realm of highly processed and adulterated foods. In addition to all the excess sugar in the diet, we are learning that ingredients like emulsifiers and other food additives impact the gut microbiome and influence energy metabolism. It is a good thing to eat “close to the earth”.
What do you see as the biggest hurdle to good nutrition for K-12 students right now, and how can it be overcome?
Too many meals prepared, packaged, heated, transported and served to kids and too little time to eat. I’d like to see kitchens opened or built on school campuses to feed the children. Schools teach children society’s value for food and nutrition every time they sit down to eat, but we might not like what they are teaching.
Allow campuses with high school and college age children to establish vocational tracks for those who don’t plan to attend college or help build job skills for those who need to pay for college.
Is there anything else you would like to add about good nutrition and fitness for kids?
In our hurry up world, we give little time, attention or resources to eating well. It's no surprise that families are incredibly challenged to manage this on their own. Between extended work hours, long commutes, sports and outside activities, plus meetings and other events, there is little time and value given to the act of purchasing, preparing and eating good food.
Children learn early on to compromise food, activity, sleep, even hygiene, as they study for the next test or meet some other expectation. In the meantime, Americans spend more money on health care and suffer more disease than most other developed countries. If we want children to value good food, fitness, and their health, then every adult needs to step up and support the effort by modeling the change they would like to see.
Nutrition, Fitness and Wellness Resources for K-12
Students in grades K-12 might have a tough time finding the proper resources for great fitness and nutrition. This list can help them get a good start, with resources that are available through their local community, or even through online means.
Track & Field Fuel-Up Challenge Game
Kids don’t know what to eat to obtain proper nutrition or what foods contain certain nutrients.
With this game, kids learn how to identify healthy foods and what to eat to get certain nutrients. The game also encourages fun exercise, so they have a sense of how food and exercise fit together to create a healthier body.
The YMCAThe Challenge
Kids don’t have a convenient place to engage in certain physical activities, including swimming and organized sports and may not know how to play certain sports, such as touch football or karate.
Students learn how to play certain sports and have regular access to those activities. For example, the YMCA can organize basketball or soccer leagues for children to participate in. Many YMCA programs are low-cost or free to qualifying students.
MyPlate Blast Off GameThe Challenge
Kids often don’t know how to prepare balanced and nutritional meals.
This game teaches kids how to choose balanced and nutritious meals, and explains how much of certain types of foods they should be eating. The more they play, the more they learn about making healthy choices.
Boys & Girls Clubs of AmericaThe Challenge
Kids might not have a safe or convenient place to play, or they might be missing out on activities that they would enjoy. They might also be longing for mentoring relationships with someone who can teach them important values, including good nutrition and fitness.
Club programs provide recreation and physical activities for kids of all age groups. Mentors are also available to talk to kids about what is happening in their lives and any help they might need, including staying healthy in both mind and body.
Summer Food Service ProgramThe Challenge For some kids, lunch at school is the only truly nutritious meal of the day. During the summer when they aren’t in school, many don’t have access to nutritious meals or simply can’t afford them.
Low income children can get nutritious and healthy meals for free during the summer. They can also have time with peers to socialize during those mealtimes.
Much has been made of the problems with obesity among the under-18 set, but the problems go much further Hthan simply packing on the pounds. Students also face numerous problems with other areas of nutrition and wellness. Here are just a few points that need to be addressed in the coming years in order to ensure proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle for students in K-12.
Food allergies have long been a big problem in schools, often limiting students in what they can eat.
If the main course contains a food that induces an allergy, that student might wind up going hungry in order to avoid the side effects they might feel if they did indulge in lunch.
Digestive problems, such as gluten intolerance or Celiac disease, can strictly limit the foods that students can eat.
A quick glance at most lunch menus shows foods that will have at least traces of gluten, and that can wreak havoc on a child’s medical condition and lifestyle.
Vending machines in schools can encourage students to grab unhealthy snacks instead of sitting down for healthy meals.
Fortunately, there is good news: In 2013, 44 percent of school districts banned vending machines, or opted to stock their existing vending machines with healthy foods, such as fresh fruits.
Lack of sports and recess in schools can lead to less exercise.
Many schools are phasing out recess, even for the youngest attendees. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report found that in 2007, only 36% of students were receiving the recommended amount of recess or play time. Losing sports programs to cuts in funding is also a concern.
Unfortunately, some students face the serious problem of food insecurity – not having enough food at home, or wondering where their next meal will come from.
In 2013, 15.8 million children lived in food insecure households, according to Feeding America. For students like this, nutritious school meals are vitally important, as they might be the only balanced meal they get that day.
Many students complain about not having enough time to eat during the school day.
With the rush to include as much classroom time as possible, student lunch periods have been reduced in recent years – students now eat for an average of seven to ten minutes during their lunch period. This can lead to the unhealthy habit of rushing to finish their food – or making “fast” choices.
Fortunately, help is on the way. Many schools across the United States are seeing the problems with school nutrition and making great changes, which then inspire other schools to do the same. When it comes to schools doing right by their students, these K-12 schools are fantastic examples:
Mater Dei School in Sioux City, Iowa earned the “2015 K-12 Health School Iowa” award by focusing on improvements in student lunches, enhanced fitness opportunities and even adding healthy snack tips into their newsletter. The school even has an on-site garden, tended by the students.
Bixby Public Schools in Oklahoma has launched a summer nutrition program. Sponsored by the USDA, the program is available to any student under the age of 18, regardless of income, and provides one nutritious lunch per day.
The Garden to School Café program, a program of the NYC Department of Education, provides initiatives to help school gardens, incorporate more fresh vegetables into daily lunches, and help students change their eating habits.
Van Hise Elementary School in Wisconsin is encouraging students to eat healthier food by lowering the tables on which the food is presented. Rather than ask for and receive a plate across a counter of typical height, lunch portions are presented attractively on shorter tables, where elementary school students can easily see the variety of choices available to them.
School lunches are changing
Since 2012, positive changes have been made
Changes are afoot
Suggestions for Home
Like so many other things, good nutrition and fitness begins at home. These tips can help students make healthy choices while they are at home, or when they are otherwise eating meals away from the school setting.