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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.