How to eat healthy in college: A Q&A with a dietitian

By Lauren Rosenblatt / Assistant News Editor

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The Pitt News: How exactly do you define healthy eating?

Elizabeth Ruder: I would say that a healthy diet is one that incorporates a variety of foods. It’s not just short lists of good foods and bad foods. You should even include some things one might be quick to categorize as bad foods, but the majority should come from nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. 

TPN: What kind of foods would you recommend people avoid?

ER: Sometimes it’s easier to talk about food that you should be eating. You want to make sure people aren’t hung up on one soda — of the tens of thousands of calories you’re going to eat in a week, the calories that come from one single soda isn’t going to ruin everything. It’s important to focus on the big picture and not just the small steps.

TPN: What advice would you give a student struggling to eat healthily in a dining hall?

ER: Pitt Dining offers students a variety of choices, so for the mindful eater there are healthy choices to be had there. I would say focus on filling your plate up with the right stuff. Rather than trying to say, “I’m only going to eat healthy foods in the dining hall,” allow yourself to have some of the less healthy choices but be mindful when you’re consuming it. Take a small portion, eat it, focus on it, put down your phone and you’ll get the same amount of enjoyment if you’re mindful as opposed to not being mindful and eating too much. It’s hard to make those choices when there are less healthful things, but allow yourself to have both, and be mindful when you’re eating it. And don’t feel guilty.

TPN: What would you tell a student that feels guilty eating less healthful options?

ER: I would tell a student that a healthful diet has all kinds of food, and someone that’s restricting themselves isn’t healthy. Have the mantra that a healthy diet is going to have all types of food. People that are restrictive [in their diet] do not have better health outcomes and do not have better weight management. It might help in the short term, but in the long term, they don’t work.

TPN: What advice would you give a student struggling to eat healthy when they cook for themselves?

ER: For students who are cooking in their apartment, it can be a challenge to get fresh fruits and vegetables, but canned and frozen are just healthy as long as they don’t have added sugar or salt. There’s nothing unhealthy about frozen broccoli or peas. 

 Another thing, sometimes you just have to go outside your comfort level and just start [cooking] — just dive in, that’s how one gains experience. There’s such an interest in cooking shows and the Food Network, so I encourage students to turn off the TV and see what they can whip up in their own kitchen. And it’s a great way to form social bonds, to cook together and eat together. 

TPN: What’s your take on frozen meals?

ER: There’s going to be a variety. Different brands are going to have different nutrient profiles for frozen foods. The downside is that depending on a student’s need, that’s not enough food. So if you’re not getting enough energy in your body, you’re going to be hungry and you’re going to walk past a pizza place and not be able to say, “No I’m full.” There can be a time and a place with some frozen meals, but there are some challenges with that as well. They might not provide enough energy for an active young adult.

TPN: How would you help someone stop overeating?

ER: I would tell them to think about why they’re overeating. People might be overeating for a number of reasons, so someone has to stop and think, “Why am I eating too much?” Some people overeat because they’re really distracted while they’re eating. For many people, sitting down at a table and eating from a plate and turning off the phone, computer or TV makes them pay attention to their hunger cues.

TPN: What’s your take on eating late at night? 

ER: That’s been researched quite a bit and there’s no substantial difference [between eating early and late]. There are some slight differences in time and how that affects metabolism but not enough to significantly affect weight. What can be problematic is oftentimes the food that people eat right before they go to bed is calorically dense. People often snack while they’re watching TV, and people rarely watch TV eating a bowl of broccoli. So that’s more the problem than the timing of it. 

 TPN: What’s your take on the breakfast debate? How much does it contribute to overeating?

ER: The long standing guideline is that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but there’s nothing magical about breakfast. For many people, it’s a way for them to get energy in their body, so they’re not ravenous by lunch time. But weight control is very simple in terms of calories in and calories out, and some people can do that without breakfast. But most people need breakfast for that to be sustainable.

TPN: Lastly, how important are snacks between meals?

ER: Snacks depends on the individual. Some people really need snacks between meals and some people don’t. If you do need snacks, make sure that the snacks aren’t super large that they become meals. If someone’s excessively snacking it could be bad, but there’s nothing wrong with eating between meals.

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