by Marion Nestle
Apr 24 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Starting a healthy lifestyle early

On Tuesdays, I answer questions about nutrition in NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News.  Today’s is about youthful immortality.

Question: Many students have expressed that, being so young, they can eat whatever they want and stay thin. What kind of implications does the type of food we eat have on our body weight? If a student is thin but eats bad foods, are there still detrimental effects? Additionally, at what age does what you eat tend to have the biggest effect on you?
Answer: It’s not only youth that keeps college students trim. It’s the lifestyle: running to classes, late nights studying or partying, irregular meals, eating on the run. Once students get past the hurdle of the “freshman 15” — the weight gain that comes from unlimited access to meal plans — most do not gain weight in college.

It’s what happens afterward that counts. Even the most interesting jobs can require long hours in front of a computer or chained to a desk. Eating out of boredom becomes routine and, once middle age hits, it’s all over. The metabolic rate drops with age, and you can’t eat the same way you used to without putting on pounds.

The college years are a great time to start behaving in ways that will promote lifetime health. If you smoke cigarettes, stop while you can. Don’t binge drink. Practice safe sex.

As for diet, eat your veggies. Whenever you can, eat real foods, shop at farmers’ markets and learn to cook. Cooking is a skill that will bring you — and your family and friends — great pleasure throughout life. If you cook, you will always have the most delicious and healthiest of diets at your fingertips.

You don’t know how? Try an Internet search for “free cooking lessons online.” Mark Bittman’s Minimalist videos, for example, make things simple with results that can be spectacular.

Do the best you can to eat well now, and think of it as easy life insurance.

  • Good points and great suggestions for instructional guidance for this generation! My only sticking point is the label of “bad foods”. It would be a great diservice to establish lists of foods as good vs bad, with regards to establishing healthy eating behaviors! A focus on balance and mindfully eating food, particularly the more calorie dense foods, would make a lot more sense.

  • Leslie

    I wish the reply had done more to address the question, “If a student is thin but eats bad foods, are there still detrimental effects?”

    YES. Diet isn’t something that only matters if you’re fat. Body weight is only one indicator of health, and a rather poor one. Poor diet can have many detrimental effects that don’t show in a person’s weight, from insulin resistance and other effects of too much sugar and too little exercise to high cholesterol to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Thin does not mean healthy, and we shouldn’t promote the idea that it does.

  • Christopher

    I can’t wait for fall to start my NYU experience! I’ll be in nutrition and hopefully learn from Ms. Nestle. Good nutrition definitely needs to start sooner rather than later. As you mentioned, older people have on average slower BMR and have more susceptibility to disease and injury. The best time to get healthy is now. Younger people may not notice what they do to their bodies by filling themselves with processed, nutritionally-deficient food-stuffs.
    I also really want to stress the importance of cooking from scratch with as organic and local ingredients as possible. That would not only reduce adverse health effects, but also promote local business and a health-conscious mentality in people.

  • Pingback: Food Politics » Nutritionist's Notebook: Starting a healthy lifestyle early | Fresh Green World()

  • FarmerJane

    Get to know the natural resources that produce your food.

  • Charlie L

    I agree with Ms. Nestle for the most part, but I’m starting to think that what a lot of people commonly attribute to “old age” or “middle age,” like slowed metabolism, is really just the culmination of years of poor eating habits. The human body is amazingly resilient but only up to a point. Also, rationalizing poor health to “old age” or “middle age” runs the risk of unintentionally reinforcing those very same eating habits that led to such so-called “old age” conditions.

  • brad

    @Charlie: I don’t think so. The metabolic slowdown is an aging-related phenomenon that happens to people regardless of their diet or exercise habits; it’s part of the package of getting older, like having to wear reading glasses and losing muscle mass (which is even experienced by lifelong weight lifters).

    There’s a difference between metabolic slowdown and “poor health.” You can do a lot to avoid poor health, but the metabolic slowdown is pretty much inevitable; it seems to be stronger in some people than others but that’s probably due more to genetics than lifestyle.

    Unfortunately our appetites are not fine-tuned to our metabolism, so as we get older the tendency is to eat the same amount of food that we ate when we were younger, despite the fact that we don’t burn it off as quickly as when we were younger (even if we’re still as physically active).

  • Anthro

    I am pretty sure that by age 80 I will be eating nothing at all. I’ve been reducing calories almost yearly to maintain weight loss since age 55 or so and it is getting GRIM!

  • Charlie L

    @Brad- I just want to make sure I understand what you mean: Did you mean that at some point as we age our metabolism eventually slows down regardless of diet/exercise in the same sense that everyone eventually dies regardless of diet/exercise (which would be true)? Or that the extent of metabolic slow down as we age occurs independently of diet/exercise (as in mostly determined by genetics)?

    Also, if appetites aren’t fine-tuned with our metabolism, it’s most likely due to poor dietary choices causing this disequilibrium rather than humans being the only animal with this evolved design flaw. So, in a sense, not all calories are treated equally inside the human body like they are in a lab calorimeter device. Metabolism and appetite are interrelated and seem to be governed by the interplay of hormones, which are in turned influenced directly by our food choices.

  • brad

    @Charlie: I’m no expert on this, but my understanding based on everything I’ve read is that it’s a bit of both: at some point as we age, our metabolism slows, just as at some point our hair turns gray and then white (assuming, in the case of guys, that we have any hair left). But just as some people turn gray or white earlier than others, not everyone experiences the metabolic slowdown at the same time, nor does it hit everyone with equal force. I suspect those differences are due to genetics rather than lifestyle.

    What I meant about appetite is that when we’re young we get used to eating a certain quantity of food. As we get older we no longer need that quantity to meet our daily energy needs, but we continue to eat the same quantity out of force of habit. It may not be tied to appetite in the strict sense of the term: most of us know people who eat even if they aren’t hungry. We eat for many reasons: pleasure, boredom, stress, etc., and not just to satisfy hunger. Portion size and frequency of eating become habits over time, and habits are hard to break. For example, I tend to eat when I’m hungry, but for my girlfriend it’s all by the clock — if I say, “let’s have lunch,” she asks “what time is it?” If it’s not yet noon, she won’t eat lunch even if she’s hungry, simply because it’s her habit to wait until at least noon to eat lunch. It doesn’t make sense, but not much does when it comes to human behavior and diet.

  • Healthy eating habits begin in very early childhood in the home environment with parents practicing healthy habits themselves. By the time our children reach college, many already have established some less than healthy lifestyle habits. I learned this from teaching nutrition to this age group for 15 years. They also are not that concerned with getting enough nutrients to prevent chronic diseases; they have other concerns at this age.

    I agree that learning to cook at this age or even earlier and learning the merits of eating whole foods instead of processed foods will provide our young adults with a wealth of skills and knowledge for the rest of their lives.

  • Charlie L

    @Brian – I think I understand better what you mean now. There’s a neat book by Brian Wansink called “Mindless Eating” that demonstrates your point of how people often eat for reasons that don’t always involve hunger. Suffice it to say that various food sellers could not be as profitable if they solely relied on consumer’s physiological hunger to signal them that they should eat. Other techniques have to be employed.

    I also think it’s a fair point that different foods provide different levels of hunger satiation for the same calories. For example, 300 calories of M&Ms versus 300 calories of broccoli. The former would leave one craving more after consumption while the latter would make many people uncomfortably full.

  • brad

    Charlie: there was a fascinating study some years back of people who were given tubs of stale popcorn at movie previews; the people who were given the extra-large tubs ate a lot more popcorn than the people who were given the small tubs, even though the popcorn itself was practically inedible; it had been popped a few days before and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it. Based on the findings of this research, an entire dieting movement has sprung up dedicated to eating off smaller plates. It works. I suspect that weight control is probably 95% about psychology and only 5% about what you eat.

    But you’re right about satiety and calorie density, which is one of the reasons why many people champion low-carb diets. It’s important to keep these kinds of subtleties in perspective when talking about glycemic index as well. For example carrots have a relatively high glycemic index (in the 40s), but there’s so little carbohydrate in carrots that you’d have to eat a lot of them to get the same effect on blood sugar as eating a slice of white bread. That’s why the concept of glycemic load was developed.

  • rob

    I think that tracking your calorie intake is a good way to see where you’ve been and to plan out where you want to go – there are a lot of free sites that allow you to track your calories as well as log what you have eaten and set up your own food lists. is such a website – free, easy to use and does a good job tracking and displaying what you have been eating.