Welcome back, Mountaineers! I hope everyone is off to a great start to the spring term. With the start of a new year and semester, I wanted to take some time to discuss a new program we are offering, remind everyone of some nutrition resources on campus and talk about all thing’s nutrition. Let’s dive in!
The Tips To-Go program is a new healthy meals education campaign that will begin this month.
These bite-sized tips will be featured on carabiner tags that are used in the reusable dining to-go box program. The tag will direct participants to find additional online information and campus resources.
Examples of monthly topics will include healthy food portion sizes, the connection between nutrition and academic performance and the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based protein diet.
Students and employees with a WVU dining plan are encouraged to enroll in the free to-go box program to reduce single-use plastics from campus and participate in Tips To-Go. Check out this video for more information on the to-go box program.
What more could we want — am I right? This program offers some fun nutrition tips and a QR code that shows you related events and programs on campus being offered — all while you take steps to reduce your carbon footprint and support WVU’s goals to enhance sustainability on campus.
That said, I think it’s a good place and topic to jump into for our New Year’s all-things-nutrition information! Our first topic nutrition topic will remind us how nutrition impacts our environment and why considering our sustainability efforts on campus is important.
Nutrition’s impact on the Environment
Nutrition and the foods we eat not only impact our own personal health but the world we live in.
The food we eat influences our carbon footprint, which directly impacts our environment and climate change. Considering how the food you eat was harvested, transported, prepared and disposed of, as well as agricultural practices is important when trying to reduce your individual carbon footprint (carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions calculated by summing the emissions resulting from every stage of a product or service’s lifetime including material production, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life) .
For more information regarding sustainability and nutrition considerations, see our previous Dietitian Dish post.
There are a variety of small simple steps you can take to try and reduce you carbon footprint. Examples include biking or walking to your class, using reusable grocery bags, buying products with biodegradable packaging, storing products properly at home to reduce waste, shopping locally or participating in WVU’s reusable dining to-go box program [2-3].
Being aware of the products and brands you buy at the store and the larger company’s production and environmental practices can assist, too.
Finally, you can even choose to a nutrition plan that reduces your environmental impact but reducing animal product consumption or following a plant-based (vegan/vegetarian) eating plan. Diets that include meat require about three times more water, 13 times more fertilizer and more than twice the energy — all of which increase carbon-footprints [2-3].
Gut health also refers to the health of your gut microbiota, which is a complicated ecosystem.
The makeup of your gut microbiota contributes to your health, immune system, metabolic rate and neuro-behavioral traits .
Nutrition does play a role in our gut health since a diverse diet has been proven to increase microbial diversity, which can affect your hormones, predisposition to disease, digestion ability and overall well-being .
Eating certain foods in various amounts can help build up bacteria that can be beneficial to our bodies; some of these foods include probiotic rich foods, whole grains, various spices, omega-3 fatty acid containing foods and fruits and veggies to name a few. Our gut bacteria has been connected or associated with increased risk of disease as we age, so consuming a variety of foods (many of the ones listed) can help combat predisposition to diseases.
While the process is complex, the foods we consume can alter our gut microbiome that will then affect our brain and hormones, effecting our mental well-being ultimately .
Stress and Mood
Stress is a common problem that everyone experiences. But chronic stress can impact your body and mood in ways you might not realize.
When stressed, our body creates a “fight or flight” response due to an increase in cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone). Elevated cortisol levels lead to elevated blood pressure, heart rate and even affects digestion .
Nutrition can support stress control by being able to regulate cortisol levels and can even aid in improved mood .
If you’re dealing with chronic stress and negative moods (first seek support via our Carruth Center), various types of foods may be able to help.
Serotonin is known as the body’s “happy hormone.” And this hormone affects mood and is made primarily in the gut (about 95% to be exact!) . What we eat goes through the gut and can affect the number of mood hormones created in the body . See our previous Dietitian Dish post regarding gut health for more information on foods that impact our gut and subsequently our mood.
This is probably no surprise to you, but what you eat can even have an effect on your immune system! You’ve probably heard, “drink orange juice for your common cold” or “eat chicken noodle soup when you are sick.” And while there is no single nutrient that can enhance your immunity alone, a balanced and varied diet together can optimize your immune system.
For example, a 2020 review looked at associations of nutrient intake and immune system efficacy and found that (get ready- this list is long!) proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins A, B-complex, C, D, and E, zinc, iron, selenium, polyphenols and carotenoids were all associated with an optimal immune system .
This list may seem overwhelming, but it's actually quite easy to get all these nutrients if you consume a variety of foods and macronutrients. Nutrient deficiencies are usually due to restrictive diets, whether it be a single food group or overall calories.
A diet lacking in a single vitamin or mineral, overall energy needs (calories) and macronutrient needs (not eliminating specific food groups) can weaken your immune systems response to foreign substances, stress, inflammation and more .
In order for your immune system to be as effective and efficient as possible, consuming a variety of foods without dieting is key.
Interestingly, our GI system and immune system impact and interact with the foods we eat, ultimately impacting our quality and duration of sleep! However, nutrition’s connection to sleep is complex, with countless studies finding varied effects when considering specific macronutrient and micronutrient combinations .
This is likely because many factors influence our sleep such as various body systems (like immune, GI, endocrine, cardiovascular system, etc.), stress, mental health, physical health, social support systems, nutrition and more.
Therefore, you should consider general food patterns as a means to improve your sleep, such as foods high in fiber, antioxidant containing foods (fruits/veggies, spices, etc.), omega-3 fatty acid and probiotic containing foods (avocado, nuts, dairy, etc.), whole grains, fruits and veggies, as well as lean proteins.
While we might not always think about it, our diet can have a significant impact on our performance in school.
Research has shown a correlation between adequate nutrition and improved academic achievements. One crucial point of this is to avoid skipping breakfast as it can affect your ability to stay alert and focused, remember crucial information and solve problems.
Hunger related to not eating enough is also linked to poor academic performance and an inability to focus making it vital to consistently fuel your body as needed.
Key dietary components for brain function include consuming consistent carbohydrates with a focus on whole grains, healthy fats, protein and a variety of vitamins and minerals (including vitamin A, D, E, C, B12, B6, calcium, folate, iron, zinc and magnesium) [13-14].
Carbohydrates are a major source of energy for the body and the brain requires it to function, so we require a fair amount of these daily.
Protein is an important building block for neurotransmitters that send messages throughout our brain and healthy fats are vital for proper brain function. Specifically, omega-3 fatty acids also are essential building blocks for the brain.
Omega-3s help with learning and memory, as well as reducing oxidative stress protecting the brain against decline and damage [13-14].
Overall, it is important to prioritize a balanced diet with plenty of whole grains, protein, healthy fats and fruits and vegetables to perform the best you can in school.
Nutrition can impact your athletic performance in a variety of ways. Firstly, the energy we need for peak athletic performance is obtained through food (not pre-workouts or caffeine!).
We get the energy we need for activity from breaking down and absorbing macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids); an athlete who does not consume enough of one or all of these nutrients may lack the energy for maximum performance .
In fact, there is a condition called Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S) is a result of insufficient energy intake (calories) or excessive energy expenditure (exercise) and can cause impairment of physiological functions .
Not only are these energy-yielding nutrients important for athletic performance, but also nutrients that don’t contain energy, like vitamins and minerals.
It is advised that athletes consume at least (and need likely more!) the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)/ Adequate intake (AI) for all micronutrients because athletes who frequently restrict energy intake or rely on extreme weight loss practices, such as elimination diets, may be at risk of micronutrient deficiency .
Micronutrient deficiencies can hinder athletic performance. For example, iron deficiency can impair muscle function and limit work capacity and vitamin D deficiencies can compromise bone health .
These are just a couple examples of how nutrition can affect athletic performance, but there are many more! Check out our previous Dietitian Dish post on specific nutrition recommendation for athletic performance.
Social Connections and Cultural Influences
Last but not least, let’s check out how our connections and culture impacts our food decisions (and vice versa)!
Social and cultural factors can influence attitude toward food and ultimately your food choices and intake .
For example, think about a food that reminds you of good memories, home and family. Are these favorite foods likely a part of your culture?
Several holidays and occasions bring social connection and nutrition together, like Chinese New Year, Hanukkah, Christmas and birthday parties.
Culture consists of values, attitudes, habits and customs. And for most people, food is cultural and not always nutritional, as a plant or animal may be considered edible in one society but not in another .
Some cultural and religious customs govern what types of food you can eat or method of preparation. Following these customs may strengthen social connection between friends and family and likely influence your food choices .
These cultural influences that impact social interactions influence our relationship with food.
Many other factors can contribute to one’s relationship with food, such as socioeconomic status, biological determinants, access to food, education, time and more.
Your relationship with food displays your connection with nutrition, which can affect your overall health, bodily functions, hormone balance and mood. Stay tuned for more information on the topic of ‘relationship with food’ in an upcoming Dietitian Dish!
Don’t forget that if you are interested in connecting with me for nutrition counseling or just want to get your questions answered about all things nutrition, be sure to visit our Dietitian Services page.
Once you fill out the form, I will contact you to set up an appointment. If you would like me to create a Dietitian Dish post on a particular topic, please fill out the form and put the topic in the comments section! That’s all for now…
- The Carbon Trust (2018) Carbon Footprinting.
- Environment. NutritionFacts.org. (n.d.). Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/environment/.
- What environmental problems arise from food production? Terrapass. (2021, December 1). Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://terrapass.com/blog/food-impact-environment.
- Leeming, E.R., Johnson, A. J., Spector, T. D., & LeRoy, C. I. (2019). Effect of diet on the gut microbiota: Rethinking intervention duration. Nutrients, 11, 2862.
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