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Healthy Dining Hall Eating

Healthy Dining Hall Eating

Maybe you started out with healthy goals at dinnertime: some steamed vegetables with your lasagna, a heaping bowl of greens from the salad bar. But as you headed to a table, the fries caught your eye. Then you decided you'd better hit the desserts now, because who knows what will be left when you're done with dinner?

Sound familiar? You're away at college, and your parents are no longer looking over your shoulder to make sure you eat your vegetables. This and many other new freedoms might feel great. But they may not be good news for your body.

While some students stock up on fruits and vegetables in the dining hall, most fill their trays with things they like without paying much attention to what their bodies need. Even someone with the best intentions probably finds it difficult to resist the less-healthy options.

Your waistline's not the only thing at stake. The foods you choose affect your energy, concentration, and memory, because your body and brain need the right nutrition to function properly. So before you reach for a soda or another slice of pizza, remember that smart choices from the different food groups will help you feel your best.

What Does Your Body Need?

Nutritional requirements vary from person to person, depending on age, sex, size, level of activity, and other factors. For specific recommendations suited to your needs, talk to a doctor, registered dietitian, or your student health office or nutritional counselor at your university. In general, however, your diet should provide you with a balance of protein, dairy products, carbohydrates, vegetables, and fruits.

Many nutritional experts recommend that the majority of a person's diet come from grains, vegetables, and whole fruit.

Whole-grain carbohydrates — such as brown rice and whole-grain breads, cereals, and pasta — are better choices than their more processed counterparts (like white bread and regular pasta) because they retain more vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Canned or frozen vegetables and fruits sometimes contain added salt, sauces, or sugar, so read the labels carefully or choose fresh vegetables and fruits. And even though fruit and vegetables are often referred to as one food group, don't skip your vegetables in favor of fruit. (You should actually eat more vegetables than fruit for an ideal balance.)

Protein is another essential part of any diet that should not be overlooked. You can get protein from meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or nonanimal sources such as dry beans (kidney beans, chick peas, and lentils, to name a few) and nuts.

Dairy products like cheese, yogurt, and milk also provide protein, as well as much-needed calcium. Eating a few servings of low-fat dairy such as yogurt or skim milk and two to three servings of additional lean protein-rich foods every day will give you nutritional benefits without too much fat and cholesterol. Watch out for snack foods that tend to be high in sugar, fats, and calories. You may not eliminate them completely, but they should only play a small role in your overall diet.

Snack Attacks

Sometimes, though, those fatty or sugary foods are just what you crave. When you've been up for hours studying, you might look to sugar, a fried treat, or caffeine because you think they'll give you a boost. Plus, they're readily available and easy to grab. But you may want to consider healthier alternatives that can give you more energy with fewer negative consequences.

If you need a solid snack, consider a lean munchie like popcorn (but watch out for too much butter or salt). Or if you're really hungry, a combination of protein and carbohydrates will satisfy you longer than high-fat or sugary snacks. Try an apple and peanut butter, yogurt mixed with low-fat granola, or a tortilla with cheese, heated in the microwave and topped with salsa.

Meeting Special Dietary Needs

Eating well is difficult for everyone, but some people face an even greater challenge than others. Like lots of students, Brian, a sophomore at the University of Virginia and a vegetarian, sometimes finds it tough to focus on nutrition. "The dining halls try to serve veggie stuff, but a lot of the time it looks pretty unappealing," he says. "Sometimes it's downright nasty, and you can't find many other options." That means on some days he ends up eating peanut butter and jelly for three meals in a row. Because Brian has little money to supplement his dining hall meal plan, he always grabs a healthy snack for later, usually a ripe piece of fruit.

Yet Brian is no stranger to nutrition and taking care of his body. He's an avid runner and became a certified personal trainer in high school. To make up for his occasional ruts, he works hard to give his body the variety of food it needs.

Vegetarians and students with food allergies, medical conditions like diabetes, or special religious requirements may find it harder to get by in a dining hall, but most schools make an effort to meet their needs. Dining hall meals typically feature several choices for a main course, one of which is usually vegetarian.

Vegetarian meals often help meet the needs of both vegetarians and students with religious requirements. Another option is to make a meal out of side dishes. Combine a baked potato topped with low-fat cheese, some steamed vegetables, and peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese on wheat toast for a filling meal. Sample salad, soup, fruit, yogurt, pasta, and other foods for more selections.

If you have special dietary requirements — especially medical ones — you may need to talk to the manager of the dining hall or to someone in student services to request certain foods. Students with food allergies need to know the ingredients that go into the dishes they enjoy — not to mention they have to be careful about ensuring that foods haven't been cross-contaminated with possible allergens like nuts or shellfish.

Most schools offer nutrition counseling through dining services or the student health center. Check your school's telephone directory or website for information.

Overcoming Common Dining Hall Mistakes

Even when they know what their bodies need, the most attentive diners can still make mistakes while filling their plates. For the best results at mealtime, follow a few simple guidelines:

Take the right approach to food. Don't feel guilty if you have a burger or a piece of cake. Instead of thinking of foods as "bad" or "good," most experts say moderation is the key. No food is off-limits — just pay attention to the size of the portions you take and how often you eat that food. Try not to get caught up in counting every calorie. It's more important to concentrate on getting the nutrients you need by eating a wide variety of food and including plenty of fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean proteins.

Check your fluids. Sometimes it's easy to confuse hunger and thirst. You may think you're hungry when your body actually needs more liquid. Be sure you stay hydrated throughout the day — and several cups of coffee or servings of soda don't count. The caffeine in sodas and coffee is a diuretic (which means it makes you urinate more) and sodas, juice drinks, and sports drinks are loaded with sugar, which can add up to extra pounds. Instead, drink plenty of water.

Go for variety. Frozen yogurt tastes great, but it shouldn't be a staple of your diet. Try not to eat the same one or two foods all the time or always take three of your food groups from the dessert counter. It's healthier to focus on getting a variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. A salad of raw vegetables, dark leafy greens, and beans, topped with some nuts and fruit, delivers the different nutrients your body needs. Or add some chicken and a little cheese to a green salad and you have a whole meal. (Plus, this is a great way to help you get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.)

Watch your portions. Our bodies can't always tell us when enough is enough: One study found that people given larger portions tend to eat more food, no matter how hungry they are. So pay attention to what you're eating and stop when you start to feel full.

The appropriate amount of food a person should eat depends on age, gender, and activity level. A portion is the amount of food a person chooses to eat, and as a general rule it should not be larger than a fist.

If you're concerned about your weight you may want to stick to the following serving size guidelines:

  • Keep protein portions about the size of your palm.
  • A serving of milk is 8 fluid ounces (1 cup).
  • A grain serving is the equivalent of one piece of bread or half a bagel. So when you eat a sandwich you are actually getting two servings of grain.
  • A recommended serving of pasta is only ½ cup (although most people may eat two or three times this amount).
  • Limit nuts and other snack foods to a few tablespoons — about the amount that fits into a cupped hand (the recommended average serving is ¼ cup).
  • Fill up on vegetables. A serving of vegetables is only ½ cup. But because most are low in calories and high in nutrients, you can pile on the veggies and be on your way to getting the recommended number of servings each day.

Do what you can to stick to these recommendations. The more you put on your plate, the more you are likely to eat.


Don't linger. Dining halls are like endless buffets. You can sit for hours, and the longer you sit the more you can eat. Try to avoid hanging out in the dining hall for too long so you don't eat more than your body needs.

Stock up on healthy snacks. Most dining halls will let you take fruit or other healthy snacks with you when you leave. Slip an apple or an orange into your bag to help you resist the late-night lure of the vending machine later on.

Beyond the dining hall, learning more about nutrition can help you make better choices about what you put in your body. Talk to a nutrition counselor or someone on the school's health services staff for suggestions. When you turn to the Web for facts, choose carefully. Some sites concentrate on nutritional fads or promote information that is incorrect. Your school's website may be a good place to start. Many universities offer online health and nutrition information tailored to students.

As you educate yourself about nutrition, making smart choices in the dining hall will become second nature. While you're paying attention to food, think about fitness, too. Make an effort to work in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day (like walking, jogging, swimming, or working out at the gym). Pairing exercise with healthy foods will help fuel both your body and your mind.


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