The University Network

How To Eat Healthy In College — Interview With Dr. Whitney Linsenmeyer, Assistant Professor Of Nutrition And Dietetics At St. Louis University

TUN sits down with Dr. Whitney Linsenmeyer, an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University and a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to discuss what students can do to eat healthy in college.

TUN: Dr. Linsenmeyer, thanks so much for joining us. 

DR. LINSENMEYER: Thanks for having me!

How can those who go to the dining hall eat well and make sure they’re getting the nutrition that they need?

The array of options in the dining halls can definitely be overwhelming. I think the good news is that dining halls have really come a long way in the past decade or so. When I was a college freshman, which was about 15 years ago, I remember there basically being one healthy choice — like one little station — and the rest were fairly unhealthy options. 

But now, across the country, we’re seeing more and more healthy options, including things like vegetarian and vegan options, representation from different international cuisines and labeling of options to recognize a lot of common allergens like nuts or dairy. 

A good visual to keep in mind when you’re faced with the array of options in the dining hall is the “USDA MyPlate.” You can Google it to see what that looks like. But, it basically just gives us a sense of what a balanced meal looks like. Essentially, half of our plates should be vegetables and fruits and the other half should be whole grains and lean protein plus dairy. 

I actually think, sometimes, the dining hall can make healthy eating easier because we typically are going to have an array of options. Many of those will fit within a balanced meal. We just have to do a little bit of legwork to seek those out sometimes. 

Are there any dining hall foods that students should absolutely avoid?

No foods are totally off-limits. I think the trick is to really practice moderation, which can be like a skill that you might be learning if you’re eating on your own for the first time, outside of the family home. 

The good news is that those dining hall options don’t typically change all that much. The soft serve ice cream station is probably going to be there tomorrow too. It’s not like we have to have it today. So, instead of getting that soft serve cone every day after dinner, think of it as like a once-a-week treat. Or, instead of loading up on eggs and bacon every single day at breakfast, get the vegetable hash most days and one piece of bacon on the side. 

Upperclassmen often have their own kitchens to cook in. They might not have a big budget, but what should they be buying at the grocery store?

If you have your own kitchen and you’re working on a limited budget and likely limited time too, the trick is to aim for minimally processed staples that hit all those different food groups. 

For fruits and vegetables, all the different versions of those — fresh, dried and frozen — all count. You might aim for fresh vegetables and fruits that have a slightly longer shelf life, especially if you’re cooking or preparing foods just for yourself. Things like apples, oranges, broccoli or carrots are going to last longer in your fridge than more delicate things like berries or spinach. 

For grains, aim for as many whole grains as you can. Think of whole-grain cereals, pastas, breads and tortillas. 

For protein, try and mix it up with different lean protein sources. Try animal-based sources like chicken or canned fish, and also plant-based protein sources  like beans, lentils or nuts. 

For dairy, yogurt and cheese will have a fairly long shelf life. Although I’m personally a cow’s milk person, I know a lot of my students are going for those milk alternatives, including things like oat milk, soy milk or almond milk. I think one benefit of those is that they tend to have a longer shelf life. 

What should students avoid buying at the grocery store?

Nothing is totally off-limits. If you love Oreos — and I do — the trick is to practice moderation. Can you handle eating just one serving of Oreos, which is three Oreos, instead of a whole sleeve? 

I have two tips to keep in mind while you’re grocery shopping. One is to shop the perimeter, if you’ve ever heard that before. You’ll often find the healthier, more fresh options in the perimeter of the grocery store. 

The perimeter is where you’ll find the produce section and the fresher sections. The inner aisles are where things are going to be more shelf-stable and oftentimes more processed. 

That’s certainly not a hard-and-fast rule. You know, things like brown rice and tuna are going to be in the inner aisles. 

The second tip is to check the ingredient lists. I like the five ingredients or less rule of thumb, if I’m looking at the ingredients list on a package. So, these tend to be less processed with fewer additives, versus an ingredient list that reads like a short novel. 

Can you run us through a day full of healthy, affordable meals? Do you have any fun meal suggestions?

I kind of picture it like this, if I’m a freshman or sophomore eating on campus in the dining hall.

For breakfast, I might choose scrambled eggs, a veggie hash, a piece of whole-grain toast and a fresh fruit. 

For lunch, I might go to the stir-fry station and go heavy on the vegetables and choose a lean protein, something like shrimp, tofu or chicken, with brown rice. 

For dinner, we’re seeing more and more of those burrito bowl stations. So, I could do a burrito bowl made with brown rice and beans, grilled chicken, the fajita veggies and then a nice spicy salsa for some big flavor. 

And then, I would add in a soft serve cone because, again, I’m practicing moderation. So, now’s the time to do it. 

For a late-night snack, if you like something salty, popcorn is a great go-to option. Popcorn is a whole grain. We just want to choose an option that has minimally added ingredients, so just made with oil and salt versus a lot of the like artificial flavors or butter.

Thanks, Dr. Linsenmeyer, for joining us today. 

My pleasure. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.