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College Girls Health Talk

This is my first time linking to a podcast, so I hope it works. In addition to podbean, it's also on iTunes under Bright Families. Transcript is below:

Hello Everybody! This is Jen Dunlap with Bright Families Nutrition.

Today we’re going to talk about nutrition and health for college girls. This is based on a talk I gave at my alma mater, Thomas Aquinas Collage, to a variety of girls at their dorm meeting.

I thought a lot about what I remembered from college and what seemed like it would be useful for these girls to be thinking about as they wrapped up their year.

I really would have liked to talk to them in the fall but I didn’t make it happen. This was in the spring as they were finishing up.

The Big Picture

College is a time of amazing opportunity, as we all know. You have a lot of options for what to do with your time and energy, and you don’t have that much responsibility compared with the real world. You can stay up late, you can get up early. You can binge on junk food, you can try weird diets. You can drink and smoke, and even at a conservative college you can get drugs if you’re really motivated.

You’re also still growing so there’s a lot to think about nutritionally. You have not reached your peak bone mass. Your brain is still pruning cells and tying everything together.

So I talked to the girls and I’m going talk today about what’s happening in the body in those years 18-22/23 so they could have some ideas of how to best make use of that opportunity.

Your Bones

One very concrete thing to start with is building bones. You’ve probably heard that exercise builds your bones, which it does, because any stress on the body sends messages about what to do in the future with similar stresses that might come up. So if you lift heavy things, your bones feel the strain and respond by getting stronger. It’s analogous to the way lifting weights tears the muscles and then stimulates the growth.

Your bone mass doubles between the ages of about 10 and 20, so in college you’re still building up to your peak bone mass. And what happens before the bone mass is totally filled in is that the matrix, the overall structure of the bone, gets built first, as you hit your height, and then that matrix is slowly filled in, and it’s not really done being filled in until you’re your late 20s. So college is not the time to go hungry while your body builds bones. Bones also grow while you sleep, and studies show that bone growth is slowed when you’re sleep deprived, especially young people. Sleep depriving a young person and and older person in terms what it does to their bones is very different.

Nutrition is really important for bones because bones remade of the nutrients you’ve eaten. We think about calcium, but they’re actually mostly made out of collagen which gives them some flexibility. Otherwise they would be too brittle to be practical. And we make collagen out of protein, the amino acids we get from protein, and vitamins in our diet. We can also eat collagen when we have bone broth with gelatin.

When you’re in college, you’re not doing your own cooking, normally, and the kitchen staffs not going to boil the chicken carcass like your grandma, so it might be worth considering supplementing collagen in college if you would like hit your peak bone mass. And this is especially an issue for women because your bone mass tends to go down fairly dramatically later on in menopause, and your bone mass is never as dense as a man’s bone mass in the first place. So it’s something women have to be more mindful of.

Collagen as a supplement mixes smoothly into hot drinks and it doesn’t really add any taste, so I would recommend just trying it in your coffee, smoothies, or hot tea, or anything like that. Of course, if you’re not eating enough overall, you won’t have the raw materials to build bone. Skipping breakfast has been shown to compromise bone growth in young people. It’s not clear why - it could be that we make poor choices about the other food to eat later in the day, because we get so hungry. Or it could be that a steadier supply of calories is better when you’re in such a rapid growth phase of life. But either way, it’s important to eat enough and move enough.

Your Brain

Another thing to think about in college is brain pruning. Your brain has so many neurons, and they’re very stimulated when you’re young. As you go through adolescence and adulthood your brain prunes - basically decides which ones are more important and which pathways are more important - to keep and strengthen those.

Now that we all have phones, we can miss a lot of personal interaction in college. We’re often so preoccupied. Even if we don’t have phones we’re often so preoccupied with what’s going on in our heads that we miss a lot of what’s going on with the people around us. We don’t see it; we filter it through our experience, through our preconceptions about what’s going on. We assume.

So making eye contact with the people around you and giving them your full attention is better for you and for them on a physical level. The feeling of being seen by another person is incredibly valuable for our physical and emotional wellbeing. And isolation, as we all know, can feel like death, if you’re ever ostracized from the group. Even if you’re an introvert and you don’t have a ton of social energy, of course you want to know that you matter to somebody.

Owning your feelings can be hard and it can be embarrassing, but that honesty will save you a lot of time and energy down the road. So all of those are reasons to think about how you’re treating your brain.

College can be a fresh start for a lot of people. If you have some family patterns that you want to leave behind, if you have new habits that you wanted to implement, if you wanted to look at the world in a different way, it’s a great opportunity. You’re in a different situation with different people and a different set of responsibilities than you would have had before. So you can make the conscious choices that help your brain to do its best, and just be aware that this is a time where your brain is changing.

Drinking and Smoking

I’ll talk about some other habits: Drinking and smoking. The edgy cool people tend to smoke and you’re not going to get a lot of judgement from me. I smoked, I dated smokers. But I think the problem is, with smoking and drinking, what it represents and replaces.

It’s a social lubricant because you can sit and smoke in a situation where you might find it challenging to prolong a conversation otherwise. It’s a ritual to transition from one activity to another, especially for people who find decisions challenging or who have a hard time sorting out their feelings.

Smoking also dampens your feelings. This can be really useful for, say, living in the trenches during wartime, living in prison. But living in modern stability, if you feel like you need to smoke your way through your day, you probably just need to improve your coping skills. Many people who smoke in college just quit after they graduate; it’s kind of a college thing, and they walk away from it in that decade after they graduate. So as a parent this is not something I’d agonize about for my own kid, but just make them aware of what’s going on.

Drinking is a little bit different. There’s a biochemical process, depending on your metabolism and how fast you metabolize the alcohol; drinking can be a sedative, or euphoric, or give you an adrenaline rush, and while you won’t hear people say they were addicted after the first cigarette, you will hear people say they felt addicted after the first drink. Not all, but a certain percentage of people. This is probably because they were already carrying some depression or anxiety with them and the drink brings some relief. But we do know that some people are just much more susceptible to developing a habit around alcohol.

What I would tell my daughter when she goes to college, and what I’ll tell you is “What is alcohol covering up?” If you’re drinking with other people, and you have to drink to have a good time with them, then there’s something funny going on. If you have a good time with them drinking and not drinking, that’s different.

If you’re not drinking and the people you’re with are drinking, your experience of the same event is going to be very different. And I experienced this myself because I was usually the not-drinker. And I would assume that what was going on was a lot more real than. the drinkers were experiencing it to be. People say things that are kind of melodramatic and emotional. It all seems very real, and if you’re the non-drinker you take it very literally. And you could be very disappointed to realize it’s actually not as real as you thought. It was.

I’ll also add that the relationships from my college friends who got married that have not lasted, which is only a few, were with people who were drinking heavily during a lot of the time they dated each other. And again, I think it’s not fair to say the alcohol was the primary problem, the problem was they wanted to be in a relationship. And the drinking was the way that they masked all their actual disagreements and friction that was going on in the relationship, because they just so needed it to work. So if you have a relationship that doesn’t work without alcohol, it’s just not a good relationship.

Both smoking and drinking are obviously used to mask depression and anxiety, and then on a physical level, in some ways they can perpetuate depression and anxiety. Firstly because they allow you to wing it and not get the help that you need, but secondly through the actual chemical changes that happen, the adaptation of your brain to the chemicals that are going to be available from these drugs or alcohol. And also through the nutrient deficiencies that can result, both directly from your body processing these compounds, or indirectly because you smoke instead of eat, or drink instead of eat, which is a very common behavior. So just some thoughts about that. Don’t want to be a purist, just you should be aware.


Another pretty challenging area for college students is sleep. There are just so many things going on, so many conversations to happen, and there’s night prayer at 11 and you don’t want to miss that, and after night prayer you start talking to someone. And pretty soon it’s 12:30 in the mornings and you’ve got to wake up for your kitchen shift at 8 and it’s kind of brutal.

Now if you’re missing sleep, first of all, your bones are not going to grow as well. Secondly you’ll be more prone to depression and anxiety if you’re sleep-deprived. That’s been shown again and again. And third, you just won’t learn as well, which is kind of a shame, when you’re there to learn and you’d really like to remember those fabulous experiences you were having. But they’re not going to stick the same way if you’re sleep-deprived.

Ideally, you’d get up a little before class, get some morning sunlight, just a few minutes. If you can get 30 minutes that’s great. If you take a walk or sit outside after breakfast or something, that sets your circadian rhythm to more easily fall asleep at night.

Then if you’re out again towards the middle of the day, early afternoon, working on your tan or whatever, that’s going to be the sunlight that helps you get some vitamin D. It’s hard to get all of your. Vitamin D from sunlight, but it’s good to get some of it, and if you keep your heavy exercise for earlier in the day or at least 2 hours before bed, that can also help you fall asleep and stay asleep easily. Another thing is to make your room as dark as you can, even. A little on the chilly side, maybe some white noise.

But the biggest challenge as a college student is to just go to bed. Just say no, I’m tired, I’m going to sleep. I’ll give an example. I’m kind of a morning person. People would say “please stop singing” at 6:30 because I would just wake up ready to go and be singing as I brushed my teeth or went to the bathroom or whatever, which drove some people nuts. So I had to learn to not sing in the morning. And I really did not do well staying up at night, it was just hard for me.

So some ways I found to work around this were to take a little nap or go to bed early on the nights I could. And some nights there’s a. dance or party which starts at 9 but you know it goes til 12 or 1. Sometimes I would just take a nap before the dance. After dinner I would just go to sleep around 6 til 7:30 to 8, which is a weird kind of late nap which wrecks your ability to fall asleep on time that night, but t hat’s the point - if you’re going to a dance til 1 or 2, then that works great. That’s a weird thing I would do that worked pretty well.

Immune System

In college people often get sick. Things just go around, especially around finals, and people are often eager to get home. You can have a cough or some respiratory thing or stomach flu, fever thing. I’ll share an example that illustrates something really interesting about the immune system. This was a really memorable example to me.

Before I went to Thomas Aquinas, I was at a less conservative college that didn’t have such strict rules about PDA, and there was this young couple in love, let’s call them Mike and Melissa. They were all over each other, they were inseparable, and they were both short on sleep.

But Mike loved his pizza and his soda. Sometimes he would pour extra sugar in his soda or lemonade. And Melissa liked to eat real food. She’d eat cottage cheese and fruit, salad, soup. She drank water or milk. Mike came down with strep and mono at the same time. Now as you probably know, mono is supposed to be super contagious, and strep, too, so Melissa by any calculations should have gotten it, but she didn’t get anything.

It’s simple to imagine that things just go around and it’s inevitable to catch them, but there’s a lot more to it, because our susceptibility is a big part of the equation. For one thing, we’re prone to different types of illness by our constitution and our habits. For another thing, our general health, such as the level of vitamins in our system, our. hydration, if we’ve been drinking our water, and our stress levels, all affect our immune system. So you have your genetics, habits, and nutritional status in that moment.

This example of the young couple really illustrated for me how much your food and lifestyle make a difference. This girl did not eat junk food, she ate real food. She took her vitamins every day that her parents had sent her with. And she did this weird thing that I thought was super, super dumb. But was clearly a great stress coping mechanism. She had stuffed animals on her bed and she had coloring books of Winnie the Pooh, because she loved Pooh. This was not a dumb girl, it just blew my mind. She had basically aced the SAT and here she was coloring pictures of Winnie the Pooh. So I said “that’s interesting” and she said “Oh, it’s super relaxing” and I thought “whatever”. But based on how well her immune system worked, she had a system that worked for her, and she was a good judge of how to manage her stress level. She was doing all the things, and even though she should have gotten sick she didn’t. Very, very interesting.

So keep that in mind. If you’re taking good care of yourself, getting enough sleep, drinking water, and mostly eating real food - not like you have to be an obsessive purist about it - that’s going to go a long way towards making your immune system run the best that it can.

Food and Diets

Another thing to talk about with college girls. We often try out weird diets, juice fasts, kept, low carb, vegetarian for Lent. All these things can affect your sleep, your menstrual cycle, and your appetite.

With any of those diets the main question is “Is it really medically indicated?” If you’re overweight and you have definite hormonal problems, and you’d like to try a ketogenic diet or an extremely low carb diet, it’s probably going to give you some benefits. If you’re not overweight, it’s a little more of a toss up whether you’re going to have any benefits.

It can be hard to eat enough if you’re not overweight, on certain kinds of diets, and it’s easy to get underweight if you become too restrictive. Then you’ll feel anxious and you just won’t feel well, period. And the difference between 19% body fat and 21% body fat could be a few pounds but it could be a world of difference for your mood, for the reliability of your cycle, your skin, and many other things.

So unless you’re modeling on the side and someone’s paying you to be extra lean - if you have some reason you’re doing it, then sure. But if you don’t have a reason to be super restrictive, movie stars and people who have to do this would be the first to say, if you don’t have to do this, why would you? Why would you live on chicken breast and broccoli if no one cares that you have that extra couple of pounds less?


A normal cycle is classically 28-30 days, but there’s really a range of 24-40. days. By the time you’re in college they should be somewhat reliable. If you started cycling very late, if you were very lean and athletic in high school, if you were a ballet dancer or a swimmer or a gymnast, your body fat may have been too low to start your cycle. Your body fat has to be, at least statistically speaking, over 20% to initiate a cycle, and if you’ve been lean your whole life, it just might be harder for your body to get it going.

We number the days of your cycle from the first day of bleeding. The first day of bleeding is day 1. If everything is working you’re going to ovulate somewhere in the middle of that, day 14 or so, give or take a few days. After the egg pops out, the hormones stay up for a few days, and then they go down. They have to get down to a certain level in order to allow the lining to shed for your next period. If your hormones don’t go down at the pace they should, you’re going to feel backed up, you won’t bleed, you’ll feel edgy or emotional those last few days before your period.

If your hormones are low overall, you might have frequent bleeding, called breakthrough bleeding, during your ovulation, in addition to the regular bleeding at your periods. Some people when their hormones get low don’t get extra bleeding, they have less bleeding, lighter periods, or their periods just stop altogether.

Any sudden change in diet or a restriction in calories can cause weird things to happen with your cycle, like breakthrough bleeding, missed periods. I’ve heard of college girls losing their periods during Lent when they give up sweets, because apparently that was a key source of their calories. I’ve heard of them getting mid-cycle bleeding when they lose weight, which is a pain. So just be aware if you start changing your diet a lot, experimenting, even if it’s overall a good thing, it can cause some weirdness with your cycle.

At least 20% of girls test as anemic. I think that’s an underestimate, for reasons that are too complicated to explain right now. Basically, by the time you test your hemoglobin as anemic, your iron has been low for some time. Many people have low iron stores for many months before they ever test as having low hemoglobin. It’s just a very crude test. But if 20% of girls are officially testing as anemic, that makes me think that many more girls are actually kind of anemic, especially in their 20s.

So if you can tolerate meat and beans and a variety of green leafy vegetables, you need to eat a really good varied diet, and consider supplementing with a good multivitamin which will include some iron.

Also, I find that I’m particularly hungry at the end of my period, and I want to eat everything in sight. It’s normal for your appetite to rise and fall, and your energy levels to rise and fall, in the course of your cycle. You just need to be respectful of that system.

You might have a lot of energy right before your period, when you might feel kind of edgy and anxious, and that’s the time to do extra exercise. Go for that long hike or do something really cardio. Then when you’re on your period, if you don’t feel like exercising, just rest. Maybe take a walk, but don’t do something epic. And then after your period, it’s quite likely you’ll need to restock on nutrients so really be mindful of that and eat as much as you like as you’re stocking back up. If you’re really hungry there’s probably a reason.

So these are just a few different things to think about as you go through your teen and college years. I hope some of this is helpful for high school and college girls, how to treat your body well and feel good during these awesome, awesome years of opportunity.

That’s all for today. Thanks for listening! Bye!

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