The everyday choices kids make when they go away to college establish the patterns they'll follow for the rest of their lives, experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research said today. Setting healthy patterns can help them in the short-term -- and help lower their lifetime risk of cancer and other diseases later in life.
For many college students, unhealthy choices lead to modest weight gain which may or may not become permanent. But AICR experts warned that unhealthy behaviors can quickly harden into lifelong habits. Research shows that poor diets, lack of physical activity and excess weight lead to increased risk for cancer and other chronic diseases.
"This is a crucial time in a person's life," said AICR nutritionist Alice Bender, MS, RD. "It's the first time young adults are making all of their own choices about food and activity. The changes in lifestyle that occur at this age - whether good or bad -- have an enormous impact on health down the road."
Healthy habits offer immediate advantages to life on campus, said Bender, who spent 20 years as a nutritionist in a university health center. "Eating well gives students an edge - physically, mentally and socially. A healthy balanced diet, together with physical activity, keeps stress manageable and helps them avoid an unwanted 'freshman fifteen.'"
Five Ways To Stay Lean And Prevent The Freshman Fifteen
AICR's advice to new and returning college students is the same: Focus of five key strategies that can turn healthy living into a habit.
- Keep Your Portions in Proportion : Bender advises, "Whether you eat in the dining halls, cook for yourself or eat out, focus on fruits and veggies. In the dining hall, head for the salad bar first and fill about 2/3 of your plate with veggies, fruits and whole grains, then choose a small portion of fish, chicken, or meat."
- Plan Meals Ahead of Time: Often overlooked, with student's busy schedules, but a little foresight helps prevent impulsive eating. Focus on meals that are simple with few ingredients. Many cookbooks and websites for meals with quick cook times are budget-friendly.
- Limit Alcohol Consumption: There's a direct link between alcohol and cancer risk, so the best advice is not to drink at all. And keep in mind that alcohol calories add up quickly.
- Don't Forget to Move: Being physically active is important to maintaining a healthy weight. It can also help you reduce stress, sleep better, and improve your concentration.
- Get Accurate Nutrition Information: Check the college's Health and Wellness Center's website or pay them a personal visit. Some even have registered dieticians for more personalized help in dietary counseling and education. Websites like USDA's MyPyramid offer free diet and physical activity trackers.
Challenges to Healthy Living
In this new, independent stage of life, many students are faced with new challenges. Concern about body image can cause some students to turn to unhealthy starvation diets instead of balanced meals. Weekend binge drinking can lead to a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. For most college students, the greatest challenge is the physical environment - 24-hour access to food in the cafeteria.
"The temptations are many, and the pressures are great," said AICR's Bender. "But the habits that form at college are the ones that students will carry with them forever. And when it comes to cancer risk, those habits make a real and measurable difference."