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Eating a salad before the main course helps ensure college students get the vegetables, fiber, vitamins and minerals they need. Plus, it leaves less room for pizza and hamburgers.
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updated 8/17/2007 6:03:31 PM ET 2007-08-17T22:03:31

Weight issues, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a lack of exercise — they're health problems we tend to associate with people facing a midlife crisis, not midterms.

But new findings by researchers at the University of New Hampshire show that these issues affect college students, ages 18 to 24, who, as a result, may be headed for a future of chronic diseases.

Data collected from more than 800 undergraduates enrolled in a nutrition course found that more than two-thirds of women weren't meeting nutritional needs for iron, calcium or folate; 60 percent of men had high blood pressure; and 8 percent of men had metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors that predict future development of heart disease and diabetes. The study also identified a third of students as overweight or obese.

"All indicators are that this population will most likely (show signs of) more chronic disease at earlier ages," says Joanne Burke, director of the University of New Hampshire dietetic internship program. "Besides quality of life issues, the health care costs will be significant. The time to address it is now."

Harboring bad behavior
It makes sense that college freshman, on their own for the first time and faced with an unlimited amount of soda, sugary cereals and ice cream, would fail to eat a proper diet —hence, the infamous freshman 15.

But experts say students can establish bad habits, such as not eating enough fruit, in the first year of college that stay with them for a long time. Naturally drawn toward socially appropriate foods, their chow too often consists of pizza, a cheeseburger or eats loaded with sodium and devoid of nutrients, says Jennifer Simmons, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services for L.A. Weight Loss Centers.

It's also possible that college students today might not have the same history of eating meals with their time-starved families as previous generations. Burke calls them "the grab and go" kids. If they regularly ate fast food for dinner growing up, they're likely not going to seek out salad and lean protein in the dining hall.

Turn-around tips
While Daphne Oz, an upcoming senior at Princeton University, struggled with her weight in high school, she found a way to not only skip gaining weight as a freshman, but actually lose 10 pounds.

Oz, daughter of best-selling author Dr. Mehmet Oz, chose to use the transition to adult life wisely, stocking her dorm room with almonds, protein bars, fresh fruits, hummus, carrots and a little chocolate. Banishing unhealthy foods helped her overcome the need to mindlessly eat high-fat snacks while she was studying.

In the dining hall, instead of having an ice cream bar for dessert, she had an apple, allowing herself to splurge a little only on special occasions, such as a friend's birthday.

"You have to assert some sort of willpower," says Oz, who has authored two books on the topic, "The Dorm Room Diet" and "The Dorm Room Diet Planner."

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Taking the extra few minutes to eat breakfast, particularly one with an element of filling protein, is another way to turn the tables, Oz and Simmons say. If getting to the dining hall in the morning is that difficult, students can stock their mini fridges with skim milk and have a bowl of high-fiber cereal or smear peanut butter on a slice of whole wheat bread.

With more universities in recent years posting nutrition information about their food, Simmons also recommends taking the time to read it. Dishes that sound healthy can be laden in butter, cream and salt. If one of your favorite meals turns out to have three times the fat content you estimated, you don't have to give it up. But at least you'll know enough to scale back.

Burke says the University of New Hampshire is looking at ways to change student behaviors, providing more portion-size education and blood-pressure screenings. She's hopeful other campuses will learn from the findings, too, and do whatever they can to positively influence coeds.

"When a child is in grade school or high school and a parent decides not to buy healthy foods, we can't do a lot," Burke says. "But in college, we can reach them."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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