Adopting habits for a healthier semester

University faculty, health professionals discuss the importance of starting healthy lifestyle habits, adopting a weight-neutral approach to health


Students should aim for a balanced meal that incorporates proteins, starches, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. 

Vyshnavi Pendala and Angela Chen | Cavalier Daily

The start of the spring semester is often defined by academic changes and added responsibilities. During this hectic period, it is crucial that students focus on their overall health. By adopting healthy eating habits and incorporating an active lifestyle into their new schedule, students can avoid long-term health complications from diseases and can work towards a healthier semester. 

The nature of institutions like the University can cause students to adopt unhealthy lifestyles. According to Melanie Brede, a registered dietician in the Office of Health Promotion, inconsistent meal times and the transition to making personal decisions regarding one’s diet primarily contribute to a different health experience for students. 

“In college, people are often for the first time making their own food decisions in a way that wasn’t available for them in the past,” Brede said. “A lot of times, daily schedules are variable, so mealtimes tend to be less traditional. All of those things create a scenario where people might eat differently than they used to.”  

Additionally, she mentioned that concepts such as the “Freshman 15” are insignificant and are merely derogatory terms published in magazines, as, on average, students only face a four- to seven-pound weight gain or loss during their University experience. 

When adopting healthier lifestyle habits, Brede emphasized the need for a weight-neutral approach, as living a healthy lifestyle goes beyond the numbers on the scale. In fact, Brede focuses on working with students to make sustainable changes that will lead to lifelong healthy habits. 

Overall, the nutrition philosophy at Student Health focuses on the enjoyment of food, the role of food in aspects of a student’s relationships, the access and sustainability of food and the construction of a diet that can accommodate any medical conditions. 

“A health-forward, weight-neutral approach is about supporting the well-being of individuals and communities, independent of weight,” Brede said. “In short, it is about helping all people of all shapes and sizes to live [healthily].”

There are appointments available with Nutrition Services at Student Health to help students learn how to live well. During the program’s initial one-hour meetings, students and professionals discuss one’s health history and determine personalized nutrition-related goals. During this conversation, students can learn more about nutritional science, budgeting in relation to nutrition-goals and more. A subsequent appointment can help students address ways to overcome obstacles related to one’s goals. 

The focus on eating habits can be even more challenging as students transition off their first-year meal plans. Brede emphasizes that students should aim for a balanced meal that incorporates proteins, starches, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. In terms of meal prepping, she encourages workable goals and simple recipes initially. Additionally, she mentioned that students could turn meal prepping and cooking into a social activity with friends. 

“It can be a lot of fun actually to get together with friends to cook something together,” Brede said. “That can be a time-saver [and] money saver, and you can overlap it with socializing and getting [connected] with people you don’t necessarily get to see all the time.”  

Brede mentioned that students with restricted diets should take advantage of the vegan and vegetarian stations offered at Runk Dining Hall and Newcomb Dining Hall. Furthermore, she emphasizes that balance is still key for those on a restricted diet. 

“That balance factor still applies … that may mean more plant-based protein, beans, soy or for vegetarians who are including eggs, [those] could be an option.”

Some students may follow specific diets such as the ketogenic diet or the paleo diet. However, these eating habits may not be effective, as they completely eliminate particular food groups, which can negatively impact health. For example, James Landers, a commonwealth professor in the department of chemistry, mechanical engineering and pathology, detailed that the lack of carbohydrates in the keto diet causes the body to pull energy from fatty acids. The liver produces compounds called ketone bodies from fatty acids, which the body can use as an alternative energy source, though carbohydrates are the main one.

“Your brain primarily wants to burn glucose … but if that is not around, it will use these things called ketone bodies,” Landers said. “The keto diet puts you in a state where your body is pulling fatty acids out of your fat stores to generate keto-based compounds that you can use for fuel and as a result, you take down your body fat.” 

Furthermore, Landers stated that the main issue regarding these practices is sustainability. Extended periods in a state of ketosis can be harmful to the body, as the brain dislikes a state of low glucose and high ketone bodies. Nevertheless, he suggests that the process is very individualistic and mentioned that newer trends identify ketogenesis as a good way to deal with obesity. 

As a general guideline, Landers recommends that students limit the consumption of refined sugar, avoid saturated fats and indulge in moderation.

Wen You, associate professor in the department of public health sciences, provided further suggestions regarding students’ approaches towards physical activity.

“For college students, it is important to foster [a culture] of healthy eating and an active lifestyle,” You said. “Going to the gym twice a week will be easier if you have a friend or a group of friends who can hold you accountable. Schedule exercise time on your calendar beforehand.”

Additionally, Brede suggests that students should focus on all factors of health behaviors beyond eating habits. This includes physical activity, sleep patterns and social support. Furthermore, she suggests focusing on all aspects of a healthy lifestyle to increase energy, improve stress management and encourage the feeling of accomplishment. In addition to Nutrition Services offered by the Office of Health Promotion, Brede also mentioned that students with eligible dining plans could access free consultation services with University Dining Nutritionist Paula Caravati. 

related stories