Fast food and takeout may be tempting, but overindulging can mean you’re consuming empty calories that can lead to malnutrition.
When I think about my own eating habits, the word “average” comes to mind. I don’t skip meals. I always eat breakfast, which is sometimes healthy — when I can resist Pop-Tarts. I eat fruits and vegetables when possible and I usually opt for whole grains. I usually don’t eat too much or too little.
You can imagine my surprise when I completed a diet analysis project for a nutrition class and the results came back as “deficient” for the majority of the nutrient categories.
The word “malnutrition” was thrown around a bit, too. What? Malnutrition? I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I really only associated that word with starving people in third-world countries who didn’t have constant access to healthful foods.
After the initial shock wore off, I did a bit of research. Kelly Hoffheins, a registered dietitian at Pennsylvania State’s University Health Services, told me that malnutrition — simply defined as lacking the proper nutrition your body needs to function at its best — is actually much more common among college students than we may have thought.
Here’s a more in-depth look at how malnutrition relates to college students, and what the potential health implications are (trust me, there are tons) of not getting enough vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats.
“When many people think of malnutrition, they think of someone who is starving or someone who is underweight, and to an extent that’s fairly true,” Hoffheins said. “But with a malnourished individual, that person might get enough calories –– but those calories are generally empty calories.”
In other words, someone who is malnourished can still be an average weight or even overweight, according to Hoffheins. Empty calories supply plenty of energy (calories) but are not nutritionally balanced; so if chips, snack cakes, soda, ice cream and Ramen noodles are frequent components in your diet, you’ll need to make sure you eat other nutrient-packed foods to compensate.
“College is one of those times were everyone has crazy schedules. Malnutrition doesn’t have to mean you’re starving. It just means you might not be getting those key nutrients for vital health,” she added. “Calories are just one part of the picture.”
And to all of my fellow female college students who are proud of themselves on weekends for barely eating in the day time, only to drink a lot of beer and eat a slice of pizza at night — sure, that might fit into your daily caloric range, but you’re essentially getting no nutrients for the entire day.
“Well, so what if I’m too busy to eat healthfully for four years of my life? Whatever, I’ll make up for it when I have a job and can actually afford healthy food.”
If that is your mindset at this point, keep reading. This is a tempting thought when you’re pulling an all-nighter and sipping on Red Bull and munching on Doritos all night, or running from class to class all day without any breaks and resorting to junk convenience foods to make up for skipped meals.
Eating poorly for four years of your life will do more damage than you might think. Hoffheins said it’s likely that if you’re malnourished, you’re already seeing the immediate signs: fatigue and an inability to handle stress. This really hit home for me. During a recent week full of midterms, it felt like even the smallest chore (“Ugh, I have to do laundry?!”) brought on unbearable anxiety. Have you felt like this recently? Take a look at what you’re eating. I’m sure my midterm week meal plan of Ramen, granola bars and energy drinks wasn’t helping.
And it might be hard to believe, but weight gain is actually another sign of malnutrition.
“This is another somewhat immediate sign,” Hoffheins said. “If you’re not eating healthfully, most people gain weight when they’re eating a diet high in calories but not nutrients.”
So if you’re still on a campus meal plan, beware of the buffets of desserts and fattening side dishes.
Aside from the short-term fatigue and inability to handle stress, you could be at risk for the long-term effects of malnutrition, too. Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and certain types of cancer are all linked to prolonged malnutrition — especially if you’re overweight and eating a diet high in fat and sodium, too.
“Those might not be the things students see in a month or two, but they’re very important to keep in mind,” Hoffheins said.
If you’re stumped on where you stand in terms of nutrition, you can visit a website such as SuperTracker — run by the United States Department of Agriculture — where you can create a food tracker that will analyze your nutrient intake based on their food database.
Hoffheins stressed that a strict diet plan is not the next step you should take if you discover you might be considered malnourished. She suggests taking it a small step at a time, and planning meals and snacks ahead of time is essential.
Especially for students who live in dorm rooms (assuming you don’t have a fancy one equipped with an oven, stove or large refrigerator), preparing unprocessed meals and snacks is difficult. Packets of oatmeal will get you in the right direction in terms of a nutritious breakfast, and snacks like baby carrots and apples are easy to store in small refrigerators. In general, when your instinct is to grab something processed, fatty, salty or sugary, make sure you have a healthier option (veggies, fruits or whole grains) available to you.
Hoffheins suggested simply eating a variety of foods so that you don’t get bored with healthier eating habits.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” Hoffheins said. “As long as you’re practicing moderation, you’re going to be OK. It’s not that you can’t eat junk foods and empty calories, you just need to treat those as special occasion foods.”
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