Healthy foods may be costly for college students

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A new set of United States nutritional guidelines released in December 2010 urged Americans to eat more foods containing potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium. But a recent study suggests meeting those guidelines may be difficult for college students, due to the high cost of such nutrient-dense foods.

The study, published in a medical journal called Health Affairs, said nutrient-dense foods tend to cost more than food that is full of calories but has minimal nutritional value, and the prices of nutrient-dense foods have increased rapidly over time.

By following the guidelines, the study said, consumers could add on hundreds of dollars to their yearly grocery bill — dollars the average college student may not have.

For example, potassium was the most costly to consume at high levels. On average, Americans need 700 more milligrams of potassium a day to reach the recommended daily value of 3500 milligrams. To do this would add on about $7.30 to weekly food costs.

Individuals between the ages of 19 and 50 who are on a low-cost food plan currently spend $58.62 per week on groceries, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Adding 700 more milligrams of potassium at $7.30 a week would increase their weekly spending by 12.5 percent.

The study also noted that increased reliance on saturated fat and added sugar as calorie sources was associated with lower cost of diet.

“The dietary guidelines give us the best guidance in health but are not economically feasible for everyone,” said lead researcher Pablo Monsivais, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

Monsivais said college students have a hard time meeting the guidelines not only because of their economic situation but also because most students do not prepare their own meals.

“Students are eating out and giving up control,” Monsivais said. “You don’t know what is in the food you order. When you go out to eat you are increasing your intake of salt, fat and sugar.”

The study suggested that consumers select foods that are good sources of multiple nutrients in order to increase their intake at a smaller cost.

To increase potassium intake, Monsivais suggested eating white potatoes, bananas and dried fruit. He also said to increase fiber intake by eating beans and dried fruit, and to increase vitamin D eat dairy foods and mushrooms.

Monsivais suggests that students spend more time in the kitchen to build their cooking skills and eat less processed foods.

Timothy Gainey, a first year dental student, said eating healthy on a budget is hard, so he eats a lot of carbohydrates because they are cheaper.

“Everything available on campus to buy is processed,” Gainey said. He also said he wished there was a place to buy fruits and vegetables on campus.

Kyle Stanley, a junior in the College of Communication, said he learned how to eat healthy on campus.

“I now use more MarquetteCASH to purchase healthy items at the brew,” Stanley said. He used to only eat in the traditional dining halls but he now receives more MarquetteCASH from his parents to purchase healthier items. 

The study also said that the government should do more to help consumers eat healthier.

The writers of the nutritional recommendations, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, have called for financial incentives to help low-income consumers purchase vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats and seafood. The committee said that the current system is good at providing calories but not nutrients.

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