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Information about food barrages us every day. Everyone seems to want a memory boost, more energy, and a healthy glow. While knowledge is power, conflicting reports and complicated suggestions may have you exasperated and saying, “Pass the French fries!”

Eating a balanced and nutritious diet is easier, and tastier, than you think. The number-one secret to good nutrition is balance. Protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats are the essential sources of energy—calories—that fuel our bodies. Vegetables and fruits round out the picture with necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber, not to mention taste!

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, taste trumped nutritional value when it came to choosing foods, although nutrition was the (distant) second-place answer. “College is a great time to experiment with new foods,” says Kristi King, senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and a clinical instructor at Baylor College of Medicine. “Your tastes change as you grow, and you may like different things, or like things you didn’t in the past.”

Trying varied cuisines can introduce you to new foods as well as new ways to prepare foods you already enjoy. “My roommate since freshman year was born in Pakistan, and I love when she cooks dinner or brings food from home!” says Alexandra C., a senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. “I love finding new foods to try and just recently had Vietnamese for the first time.”

No matter what type of food you like, understanding the basics of balanced nutrition will help you maintain your energy and health.


We need protein for energy and to build lean muscle mass. It’s also a source of vitamins B, E, iron, zinc, and magnesium—among others. Most Americans get plenty, if not too much, protein, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). What does this mean?

The average female college student needs about 5 ounces (about 142 grams) of protein a day. Male students need about 6 ounces (170 grams).

For reference, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a young man could get all the protein he needs for the day by consuming the following:

  • 1 cup of milk;
  • 3 ounces of meat;
  • 1 cup of beans; and
  • 8 ounces of yogurt.

There are as many sources of protein as there are culinary tastes. Lean poultry, beef, fish, and pork are readily available, as are beans, legumes, and lentils. Nuts have lots of protein (they are in the legume family) and also healthy fats. Tofu and tempeh, both made from soybeans, are an excellent, versatile source, as is wheat gluten, often sold as the Asian ingredient “seitan.”

Learn more about non-meat protein sources

Lean meat, poultry, and fish are great sources of protein. You can, however, get all your protein through non-meat sources such as beans, peas, tofu, wheat gluten, and nuts.

The Vegetarian Resource Group is a great source of information for vegetarians and vegans, but meat-eaters will also find lots to learn.

Visit their Web site here: https://www.vrg.org/.

When meats and other protein sources are baked, broiled, stir-fried in little oil, or grilled, they retain their taste and texture, and don’t soak up additional fat.


Carbohydrates are another source of energy, but your body can process them more quickly than protein and use the calories right away.

Carbs get a bad rap: they are often portrayed as the dieter’s enemy. It is true that if you consume more carbohydrates than you need, they get stored as fat. However, complex, whole-grain carbohydrates are an important staple of your diet. They provide quick energy to your muscles, help you to feel full, contain fiber, and carry many essential nutrients. As the Harvard School of Public Health says, “Choose good carbs, not no carbs.”

Much of the nutrition in grains is carried in the outer hull. As a result, refined flours and grains, which have had the hull removed, have fewer nutrients than those in their whole state.

More suggestions of whole grains

Try some of these whole grains for a change of pace from bread and regular pasta:
  • Barley
  • Steel-cut oats
  • Quinoa
  • Kamut and other “ancient grains”
  • Brown and wild rices
  • Whole wheat couscous

Keep in mind that some starchy vegetables—like potatoes, carrots, and lima beans—also have carbs. Fruits do, too.

Fruits & Veggies

Fruits and vegetables get the most space on your plate because they are loaded with vitamins and minerals that do everything from helping to form red blood cells and build genetic material (vitamin B12 and iron) to helping you resist infection and heal more quickly (vitamin C). Other vitamins assist your body in turning protein and carbohydrates into energy. Fruits and vegetables are also an excellent source of fiber, important for digestion and reducing blood cholesterol.

Many people think they don’t like vegetables, simply because they’ve only had them canned and don’t realize how vibrant, varied, and pleasing they can be. Add color and rich nutritional value to your diet by eating plenty of dark leafy greens. Each color family has different vitamins and minerals, so build a rainbow on your plate! You really can’t eat too many fruits and vegetables.

More veggie based ideas on color

Make a rainbow on your plate!

Here are varied ideas:
Orange: carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, pumpkin
Yellow: bell peppers, squash, cauliflower, bananas, yellow/green apples
Blue: blueberries, boysenberries, red cabbage
Red: raspberries, cranberries, beets, grapes
Green: arugula, chard, collards, spinach, kale, broccoli, celery

Kelsey B., a senior at Boston College in Massachusetts, is living off campus this semester. She and her roommate have been learning to cook and keep meals interesting by hitting farmers’ markets twice a week and loading up on a range of fresh, local produce that varies by what’s in season.

Keep Cold

While fresh, locally grown foods are best, King says stocking up on frozen fruits and vegetables can be cheaper and will allow them to last longer. Karlene G. is a graduate student studying nutrition at the University of Alabama. She says she learned to keep her freezer stocked with mixed vegetables to toss into dishes. Crops that are freshly picked, then flash frozen, retain their flavor, texture, and nutritional value. In fact, frozen fruits and veggies are generally as good for you as fresh.

Can It

Stick with products that contain only the vegetables or fruits you want. Many options come sauced, buttered, or have sugar or other sweeteners added. This is especially true if you opt for canned ingredients. Canned fruit can be packed in water or fruit juice, but is often immersed in a thick sugar syrup instead. Vegetables are often sealed in a salty brine. This makes them very high in sodium, and quite mushy.

Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences in Massachusetts, points out that one good canned option is vegetable, bean, or lentil soup. Low-sodium varieties are tasty, filling, and easy to prepare.

Salge Blake suggests smart snacking as another way to pack in veggies. “Your goal is to get about 4.5 cups of fruit and vegetables a day. A [woman’s] fist is about a cup. [Men’s] fists are more like 2 cups,” she notes. For example, grab a handful of trimmed carrots or make a salad of green beans, red peppers, corn kernels, chopped kale, and some squeezed lemon to tote to class.

On the Go

Tons of fruits and vegetables were born to travel. Bananas have their own container, apples never seem to bruise, and carrot and celery sticks (or baby carrots) will last all day. Try munching on grapes, blueberries, or grape tomatoes during class (they’re quiet!)

Fats: Not All Are Equal

Fat is actually an essential macronutrient; we need it to maintain our cell membranes, provide cushioning for our organs, and absorb vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. “Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health, and they’re good for healthy skin and hair, too,” says Salge Blake. Fats are also extremely dense sources of energy, so a little goes a long way.

“Good” Fats
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats come from plant sources, like seeds and nuts, olive oil, and avocados. They are also in fish, especially salmon.

“Bad” Fats 
Saturated fats are considered unhealthy. Sometimes called “solid fats,” they come from animal products and contribute to high levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Examples include milk fats, butter, and excess fat on meat.

Sneaky names for fat

  • Coconut or palm oil
  • Palm kernel oil
  • Tallow, suet, or shortening
  • Ghee (clarified butter; often found in Indian cooking)
  • Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oil

Trans-fats, which sound like they are plant-based oils, are also unhealthy. Don’t be fooled by ingredients such as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.

Build On Your Healthy Plate

When Karlene was in her first undergraduate year at Johns Hopkins University, she was required to be on a meal plan. As a vegetarian, she says, “It was so easy, there were really a lot of good vegetarian options, and a good salad bar.”

When she moved into an apartment the next year, she had to cook for herself and found it challenging to plan, shop, and prepare vegetarian meals on her own. She decided to add some meat back into her diet for a while. “I just felt like I wasn’t eating as well,” she says. “Just getting to the grocery store was hard sometimes, and then to come up with something creative and tasty [was tough].”

Kelsey B. agrees. She tries to eat well but says she sometimes finds herself getting into a rut. “Some weeks I notice that I just had the same thing over and over, and realize I’m probably not getting the best nutrition.”

Taste the Rainbow

Eating a wide variety of foods is the best way to ensure that you get enough of all the different vitamins and minerals you need. Salge Blake points to the USDA’s MyPlate: “It’s very colorful, to remind you to be as colorful as possible in your food choices,” she says. Just make sure your foods are naturally colorful, not artificially altered.

Pass the Salt

Go for color, but avoid white on your plate; excessive salt and sugar can sabotage healthy eating. While most people think sodium is something only older folks need to be concerned with, King says young people should also be conscious of salt, especially if there is a family history of high blood pressure. “Processed food is high in sodium,” agrees Salge Blake. “It’s important to moderate your intake. [If] you acquire a taste for salt, it becomes harder to cut back as you age,” she cautions.

Don’t Be Too Sweet

Your body gets all the sugar it needs from fruit. Plus, the body breaks carbohydrates down into sugars, so there’s plenty in the bloodstream if you’re eating a balanced diet.

Of course, who doesn’t enjoy sweet foods occasionally? Cookies, ice cream, and cake are all okay in moderation. There are also lots of ways to create treats with processed-sugar substitutes, such as fresh and dried fruit as well as whole-fruit juices.  (Look for ideas in the December 2012 issue of Student Health 101.)

A list of the many names for sugar on ingredient labels

Though called all sorts of things, sugar is sugar is sugar:
  • Corn syrup
  • Lactose
  • Malt syrup
  • Molasses
  • Sucrose, glucose, and fructose
  • Cane juice
  • Anhydrose dextrose, crystal dextrose, and dextrin

Look out for slyly sugary foods. Fruit drinks often have lots of extra; if the label doesn’t say 100 percent juice, sugar or artificial sweeteners have been added. Many reduced-fat products are culprits, too. Companies add sugar to enhance texture and make low-fat foods seem more satisfying.

Understanding Portions

“Who goes to the dining hall with measuring cups and a scale?” Salge Blake asks. She points out that MyPlate and other tools (like the Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate) make it easy to visualize how to fill up your dish. Using a smaller container can help, too. People tend to eat more when they use a large plate.

With essential nutrition information in hand, you can craft meals that are simple to prepare, budget-conscious, delicious, and great for your health.

Take Action

  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins.
  • Experiment with proteins from non-meat sources like beans and nuts.
  • Break up the monotony of pasta and white rice with alternatives like quinoa and couscous.
  • Make your plate a rainbow. The color of fruits and vegetables tells you a lot about their nutritional value.
  • Limit salt and sugar intake and drink plenty of water.
  • Try varied cuisines and food-prep methods and alter recipes to make them healthier.
  • Test your nutrition smarts
    What do you know?
    Test your nutrition smarts with these quizzes:

Get help or find out more
Consult your health center, a nutritionist, or dietitian for more about healthy eating.

Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source


U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate

Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Nutrition for Everyone

The Vegetarian Resource Group

West Virginia University’s Nutrition Labels Information

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