Life can get busy, especially for full-time workers who also take online college courses. Add a family and a full social calendar to the mix, and everyday self-care can begin to slip through the cracks.
A healthy sleep pattern is one of the most common casualties for college students as well as busy professionals. A University of Michigan study published in 2014 found that 50% of college students report daytime sleepiness, and 70% receive adequate sleep.
Certainly, sleep should not be neglected. Yet, a healthy, balanced diet is even more important.
According to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health, eating well allows you to:
- Maintain the energy you need to think and be physically active
- Maintain emotional equilibrium
- Provide your body the vitamins and minerals you need to stay alive and remain healthy
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases
Eating and drinking healthy requires, simply, ingesting food and beverages that allow the body to function normally and disease-free. For most people, that means avoiding excess or added sugars, salt (sodium) and saturated or trans fats.
Yet, there is more to a healthy diet than eating the right foods and drinking the right liquids. Healthy eating also depends on the pattern of your meals and snacks, such as time of day you eat, the variety of foods and portion size.
What is Nutrition?
The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines nutrition as:
“The science of food, the nutrients and other substances contained therein, their action, interaction and balance in relation to health and disease.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) takes the definition a step further by examining the combination of ingested nutrients, or nutrient density, as it relates to the intake of vitamins, minerals, fiber and other ingredients found in food, beverages and dietary supplements.
Some ingredients are used by the body to perform specific functions, such as muscle growth. Other ingredients serve as catalysts, or enablers, of those functions. In short, the body needs a variety of substances to function, and the way most people obtain those substances is through eating and drinking.
Establish a Healthy Pattern
The eating pattern is the way the foods you consume fit together to meet your nutritional needs. It is determined by the food you eat, the beverages you drink, how much of each is consumed, the frequency food is consumed and your average level of physical activity.
Everyone must be mindful of their pattern of eating and drinking, but this is particularly true for people who lead extraordinarily busy lives. Full-time workers who also take online classes fall squarely into this category.
Variety is the primary distinguishing factor of a healthy diet pattern. The USDA recommends that dietary choices include:
- Whole fruits
- Dark green, red and orange vegetables
- Legumes (beans and peas)
- Starchy vegetables
- Whole grains
- A variety of lean protein from animals and plants
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy
- Oils (olive, nut, avocado, seafood)
In addition to a variety of foods and beverages, the USDA recommends in its dietary guidelines that individuals:
- Consume less than 10% of calories from added sugars
- Consume less than 10% of calories from saturated fats
- Consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium
- Consume alcohol in moderation (one or two drinks per day)
Calories are needed to maintain energy level and to function during waking hours. Over-consuming calories can cause weight gain and even obesity if not balanced by exercise and other physical activity.
The USDA recommends that individuals maintain a healthy eating pattern that accounts for all food and beverages within an appropriate calorie level.
The daily recommended caloric intake for each person will vary. The number of calories required to maintain calorie balance – a zeroing out of daily calories consumed and calories burned – is based on age, gender and daily physical activity.
For example, the USDA’s recommendation to achieve calorie balance is that a moderately active man age 31-35 consume 2,600 calories per day. A moderately active woman in the same age group should consume 2,000 calories per day.
In the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines report, the USDA emphasizes that research continues to reinforce the evidence a healthy eating pattern leads to better overall health outcomes and reduces the risks of:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Certain types of cancer
- Morbid obesity
How to Plan for Good Nutrition
It can be difficult to maintain a healthy eating pattern when your schedule at work, school and home is packed. Yet, online students can turn this dietary challenge into an advantage with just a little planning and will power.
Start by establishing a weekly schedule. Include all your commitments: work, school, family, social, exercise, rest, household chores, grocery shopping, etc.
With your daily calendar established, determine when you plan to eat. Where will you be at those times? Home? The office? Out with friends? What kind of food will be available to you? Can you prepare it yourself?
Once you have determined the answers to those questions, make a meal plan that includes all the food types you need to meet your nutritional goals. Going in with a plan for proper nutrition is half the battle, because leaving your daily meal plans to chance can lead to making bad nutritional choices.
Practically speaking, it can feel like a burden to try to count calories and pay close attention to what kind of food you’re eating. If you own a smartphone, though, there are many options to help you. Personal health apps are available that allow you to measure:
- Caloric intake
- Carbohydrate intake
- Water intake
- Physical activity
- Changes in weight
- Sleep patterns
- And more
For those with special dietary concerns, such as diabetes, gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), paying close attention to a healthy eating pattern is even more important. Plan ahead and always be aware that the food and beverages you ingest will determine your level of fitness, your level of energy and your overall health now and for the rest of your life.