At Middlebury, students have access to three dining halls with essentially unlimited food. Whether you’re going vegan or paleo, there are food options for you on a daily basis. Indeed, it’s quite easy to choose from a range of choices in order to properly balance your personal nutritional needs.
However, unhealthy diets are rampant on college campuses, Middlebury not excluded. For the typical student, you can probably blame your friends — at least partly. Research has shown that peers strongly influence eating habits. For instance, a 2013 study by Fitzgerald et al. found that “peer support for unhealthy eating was associated with unhealthy dietary patterns.” So if you and your buddy go to the Grille and he gets a Triple Bypass, you may be tempted to do the same.
Yet it’s not just about eating the wrong stuff — it’s also about not eating enough of the right stuff.
In particular, our large athletic population is at risk for poor nutrition. In order to perform well, it is essential for athletes to obtain the correct amount of calories and nutrients. A brief rundown of the essentials:
Carbohydrates are the most essential energy source for athletes, as they yield the most energy per unit of oxygen.
Fats are essential for more long-term athletic events, and limiting fat intake can often hider performance in this regard.
Generally, proteins are third in line for athletic importance. Excess protein intake can actually hinder performance by increasing the water amount required to eliminate nitrogen in the body and by increasing the need for oxygen consumption.
Proper hydration is another key to performance. Water is needed to absorb sugar into cells. Staying on top of hydration is also essential to prevent dehydration, which can be fatal.
While no data is currently available at Middlebury for athletic malnutrition, a recent study by Shriver et al. from Oklahoma State University investigated if female college athletes were eating a diet essential for supporting their training. The study followed 52 individuals from a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I university from January 2009 to May 2010. The study found that 75% of the participants did not consume the amount of carbohydrates necessary to support their training, and that a majority of participants did not eat a regular breakfast. In addition, only 16% monitored how hydrated they were. One can imagine how detrimental this effect can be on performance that requires maintaining good hydration and energy levels.
While personal fitness is one thing, depriving yourself of nutrients to achieve a certain weight or body size is another. It is well known that environments that strongly condone fitness are breeding grounds for eating disorders. Indeed, a 2013 study by Forney and Ward found that college women “who perceive a social environment that values thinness” are more likely to develop eating disorders. College men are also not spared from this situation— the same study found that, while concern over “thinness” is less of an issue in men, body dissatisfaction does contribute to eating disorders as well. This is compounded by one’s peers, who may also have body dissatisfaction and can influence one’s eating habits. So if your friend isn’t eating falafels on Greek night, chances are you may feel pressured to skip out as well.
Of course, the depravation of essential carbohydrates and fats can work against the ability to perform. Being thin does not a fit person make. And, of course, there are individual exceptions.
The importance of eating right has been (figuratively) crammed down our throats since grade school. But in practice, college students often do not “eat right.” At Middlebury, we have access to all sorts of food — veggies, pasta, desserts, meat, Dr. Feelgoods. So, my take-home message is this: eat falafels, enjoy a Grille treat every once in a while, and be aware of your body and your personal nutrition needs. Recognize that thinness is not a requirement for fitness, and that your body demands those extra carbs/fats/proteins for the amazing things it’s able to accomplish.