Nourishment for High School Graduates: Putting it All Together

Thanks for joining me again for the seventh and final installment of the Nourishment for High School Graduates series. This series is directed towards young adults who are just leaving home and entering the adult world whether they’re working, going to school, or doing both. If you’re new to this series, you will find links to all of the articles at the end of this post. In this post, I will recap what we’ve gone over so far and then talk about a few other topics that didn’t fit nicely into the previous posts.

First, I talked about the main challenges to good nutrition that you face when going out on your own, namely limited time, space, and money. The solutions to these problems include learning to plan meals and snacks, budget your money, manage your time, and learn some basic cooking skills. It sounds daunting, but if you take it one thing at a time and start simple, these are all skills that you can master.

To give you those skills, I next covered the basic principles of meal planning and then the similar topic of planning satisfying and sustaining snacks to get you through the sometimes long and unpredictable days. For meals, a simple strategy is to make sure that every meal has a starch, a protein, and a vegetable or fruit. Alternatively, just make sure each meal has foods from at least three food groups. Snacks can be similarly planned like mini meals, but you only need foods from two food groups, making sure that you have some protein, fiber, and carbohydrates.

Since time and money are of the essence, I next explained several strategies to enhance simple, inexpensive, convenience foods to improve their nutrition and taste. Even if it’s not 100% ideal, it can still be nourishing, satisfying, and less expensive than take-out. Try improving these inexpensive convenience foods by adding things like vegetables, beans, meat, and seasonings. Ramen noodles can become a tasty vegetable and leftover chicken stir fry instead of a plain, salty soup that only keeps you full for an hour.

In my next post, I covered many of my favorite strategies that I have used to eat well when time, space, and money are limited. These include buying only what can be eaten before it goes bad, always seeing what you have before you go shopping and making sure that you use it first, watching for sales on your favorite foods (but not being seduced by coupons or sales for foods you probably won’t eat), learning to cook simple and inexpensive foods, and sharing bulk items with others who have similar tastes.

Finally, in my most recent post, I went over the basics of vegetarian nutrition. That’s not necessarily because I think a majority of you will try out vegetarianism voluntarily, although some of you will. It’s mostly because meat is expensive and many of you will be “obligate vegetarians”. By knowing the basics of vegetarian nutrition, you can make sure that you get the nutrition that you need even if you are never or rarely eating meat. This might include eating complementary proteins, such as a legume (beans, lentils, and peas) and a grain, to get complete protein in your diet, and identifying iron-rich foods that you can eat so that you don’t become anemic. I also went over great ways to make vegetarian food satisfying so you don’t feel deprived just because there’s no meat.

Other challenges you might face and how to handle them

Navigating the Cafeteria

Most universities right now require incoming freshmen to live in the dorms and purchase a meal plan with the cafeteria. A lot of dorms don’t even have a kitchen, so you’re completely dependent on the cafeteria for your meals. This can be a big help with transitioning, but it has challenges all its own. It’s easy to over-do it when every day looks like a super buffet and you’re not used to listening closely to your body’s fullness cues. These may also be foods that you find unfamiliar or unappetizing. Here are my top tips for navigating the cafeteria:

  • Use the principles of meal planning that you learned. Make sure your plate/tray has a protein, a starch, and a vegetable.

  • Don’t feel obligated to try everything. It will still be there tomorrow…and the day after…and the day after… If you’re excited to try everything, pace yourself so you don’t make yourself sick or end up getting sick of it all.

  • Don’t feel obligated to clean your plate! Yes, food waste is a problem. But eating food that you are not hungry for is still wasting it! If you get to serve your own food, then take time to pay attention to how hungry you are and how much food you need to be satisfied. That way you’ll be throwing away less because you aren’t taking more than you need. If someone else serves you, you may have to get more comfortable with throwing leftovers away (unless you can take them home). If you over-eat every once in a while it isn’t necessarily a huge deal. You might simply find that you’re less hungry for a while after. But if you’re consistently over-eating meal after meal because you feel obligated to clean your plate, you’re going to find yourself feeling very uncomfortable and not performing your best.

Getting/Staying Active

It might not seem worth your time to participate in sports or exercise when you are so busy, but it will make a huge difference in how you feel and how you perform in your job, schooling, and anything else you’re dedicating yourself to. There is so much research showing the benefits to your brain, your mood, and your sleep that exercise provides. Those of you who were athletes in high school but won’t be going on to do college athletics may not be used to finding other ways to be active, but it’s important to keep up with it. And if you weren’t very active in high school, this transition time is a great opportunity to form new habits and reap the life-long benefits of an active lifestyle.

  • If the thought of exercise makes you shudder, don’t think of it as exercise. Instead, think of it as movement or activity. It doesn’t need to be regimented or unpleasant. It just needs to get you moving.
  • Find something that you enjoy! For me, it was the big band swing club. I still miss it! If you like doing yoga in your bedroom, go for it! YouTube is full of free yoga routines. If you like playing basketball, see if you can find a group to join or start a group of your own. Hiking, gardening, walking, ultimate frisbee, and swimming are just a few more options that you might think about. Try new things. You never know what you might end up enjoying.
  • Start slowly. If you’re new to movement you don’t want to injure yourself. And jumping into it too quickly could leave you exhausted and feeling that you hate exercise. Take your time while challenging yourself and it will be much more enjoyable.
  • If you’re a student, take advantage of the resources your college/university offer to you. Your fees may have already paid for a gym membership at the fieldhouse and full-time tuition may be enough to cover an elective PE class.

  • Bike and walk to classes and work. This may not be enough by itself but it’s a great start. And walk briskly! That will get your heart pumping better than a regular pace.

  • Walking, running, and biking for exercise are almost free. Get some decent shoes (and helmet and bike if you’re biking) and hit the pavement. If you’re new to it, start slowly and build up.

  • Schedule it! If you treat it like an appointment, it’s a lot more likely to happen. If it’s always something that you can get to later, later may never come.

Don’t Diet

I know some of you have probably already experimented with this and I’m not here to scold you for it. I also know that you’re going to see a whole lot of this from here on out, especially with young adults. There is a LOT of misinformation about health and nutrition out there and a lot of it comes packaged as weight-loss diets or “wellness”. But the fact is, dieting doesn’t work and is incredibly bad for your health. For instance, did you know:

  • Only 2-5% of people who lose weight through dieting keep it off. Can you imagine anything else with a 95-98% failure rate being considered the golden standard of health and weight management?

  • About 2/3 of people who diet end up gaining more weight than they lost. This means that it actually does more harm than good. Most people who have been on diets for years would do almost anything just to weigh what they did when they went on their first diet.

  • Dieting is predictive of weight gain and developing eating disorders. In studies where researchers have followed people over time, including identical twins, they have consistently found that those who diet end up weighing more and being more likely to develop an eating disorder, even if they started at the same weight or have the same genetics as those who don’t diet.

  • Individuals who diet experience similar symptoms to people who have endured psychologically traumatizing events such as starvation. It kills your confidence and your relationship with food.

  • When you diet, it slows your metabolism and destroys your body’s muscle mass. Even exercising isn’t enough to combat this.

  • Dieting makes us dislike healthy eating and exercising. We start thinking that we only eat vegetables if we’re on a diet and they must be so gross that we wouldn’t possibly do it otherwise. We think the same way about exercise– it’s torture so why do it if you’re not trying to lose weight? In addition, trying to exercise when you’re not eating enough can lead to more injuries and cause us to believe that we hate exercise or that our bodies simply aren’t meant to exercise.

So instead of dieting, here’s what I suggest:

  • Focus on how you feel, not what you weigh. If I’ve been on the road a lot and had to eat out for most of my meals, I notice that I just don’t feel as well and I miss having more vegetables. You’ll notice a difference too if you pay attention. Focus on eating foods that help you feel satisfied and healthy.

  • Listen to your hunger and fullness signals. Your body came pre-programmed with a highly-specific, well-calibrated system for telling you when to eat, how much to eat, and when to stop eating. It’s not the same thing as seeing a commercial for pizza and thinking to yourself, “I could really go for some pizza!” It’s more internal and if you’re not used to it, it can take a while to learn your signals. But they’re there. Once I learned to tune into my own signals at the age of twenty, my weight stabilized and I no longer had to spend so much time and energy thinking about food and worrying about my body. It was liberating and empowering and still is! (For more information, I highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. I am not being compensated for this plug in any way; I just really love their work!)

  • Be kind to yourself and be patient. Would you say the sorts of things to your friends or family members that you say about yourself? If not, take a step back and think about what you’re doing. Your body is a precious gift. It lets you taste, hug, learn, play, accomplish, and experience life in every other way. Show it some respect!

  • Don’t have forbidden foods. Unless you have a food allergy/intolerance or religious/conscientious objections, never say never! Registered Dietitian Kathleen Zelman was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying, “When a food becomes a never food, you obsess.” We generally want what we can’t have. This actually leads to MORE over-eating of the food. Conversely, when we give ourselves permission to eat whatever we want, there is no longer an urgent need to go over-board when we do eat it, because we know we can always have more. You may even find yourself leaving some of it behind because you’re full and you know you will have it again. (If this seems hard to believe, try asking people on diets what sorts of foods they would like to eat the most. If they’re being honest, it will almost always be one of the foods on the forbidden list.)

Best of luck to all of you as you step out into the adult world. You will do great. Happy eating!


The Challenges to Good Health and Nutrition

Meal Planning

Snacking for Health and Productivity

Upgrading Your Cheap and Easy Meals

Eating When Time, Space, and Money are Limited

Basics of Vegetarian Nutrition

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