BUDS Dietitian Navigates On-Campus Dining for Week-Long Healthy Eating Challenge

December 09, 2019

Written by Jacob Ocon, BUDS Editorial Intern
Before diving into the full Healthy Campus Meal Challenge blog, check out this Q&A with campus dietitian and resident dining hall expert Julie Lee (MS, RD, CDN) for some background info and quick tips!
Can you share an overview of the dietitian career process, your career, and your position at BU?
The traditional route to become a dietitian is through an accredited undergraduate program (I went to Oneonta), and after that you go through an accredited 1200 hour internship, then you take the registration exam. Potential dietitians should know though that new requirements starting in 2024 will require a master’s degree for the internship! I have been a dietitian since 2012 and spent the first few years of my career part-time positions in several areas including long-term care, oncology, and bariatric surgery. I started in the fall of 2016 at BU, and the focus of my position has varied over time and according to student needs. Nutrition counseling is on the rise, particularly in the area of treating eating disorders. I also often help students with dietary restrictions, like allergies, to ensure they can eat safely and adequately. Otherwise, I’ve been involved with employee wellness programs for the University and Sodexo, and I regularly speak to classes and on-campus groups about nutrition.  It’s been my favorite job by far!
What exactly are the rules of this challenge?
It’s pretty simple. I had to eat all meals on campus (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and I couldn’t receive any sort of special accommodations, so only food in the format it is available to students.
What inspired you to do this challenge?
I saw a similar challenge at Cornell with their food managers, but it was only one day and focused on special diets. I saw that and decided to adapt it to general healthy eating habits in order to make it more impactful to a wider audience. I would certainly do an edition specific to a dietary need though!
Who would benefit from following along?
I think most college students, especially first year students, come to campus without having ever structured their meals for themselves. At college, it’s really up to you to find food and make time to eat it. I hope this serves as a great example for those students, showing how to organize your eating schedule and what to watch out for nutrition wise. Of course, anyone who wants to find new and nutritious meals on campus can also look here for creativity and more information on campus food options.
What do you think are common misconceptions about dining on campus? Why might some students think it’s “challenging”?
I think a common misconception is that for one, it’s not “easy” to find healthy options. Students tend to needlessly limit their nutritious options to salad, which coincidentally happens to be more expensive because it’s a weighed item, creating the impression that these options are limited and not meal plan-friendly. Not true! I also think students will see what they feel are “unhealthy” options more often because that’s what is most visible upon walking into a dining hall. In reality, the menus have a ton of healthy and economic options if you just take a little more time to survey all of the options available at any given time. The same can be said of vegan and vegetarian diets; there are tons of options that may require a little thinking outside the box, and this challenge shows just how to do that. 
Favorite meal you enjoyed? Favorite dining hall?
I really enjoyed the Diwali lunch at The Chenango Room. The multicultural buffets are always a great spot for tasty and nutritious dishes. Also-the night owl I had last night (grilled salmon, one of my favorites!). Overall, I’d have to say my favorite dining hall was App (Shhh...don’t tell anyone), I really liked them all but you just can’t beat that view! Also, the expansive salad bar allows for more creativity in things to add to your meals to mix things up.
How can students plan ahead and prepare for busy days?
My best piece of advice is to do just that-plan ahead. The night before, think about how the next day is going to go. Start with what times you’ll realistically be able to eat meals. Fill in any gaps of more than 4 hours with a snack. Think of whether or not you will need to pack any meals or snacks to take with you if you don’t think you’ll have the time to stop at a dining hall or other food outlet. Do you need to take a sandwich or salad out of the dining hall the night before to ensure you eat lunch? Invest in a good insulated bag and some microwave-safe containers to keep your food in. Some good portable snack options include nuts, seeds, trail mix, granola/protein bars, fruit (whole or dried), dried chickpeas, beef/turkey jerky, pretzels and peanut/seed butter packet. The list goes on...
What can you eat between meal periods (i.e., 2:30 or 3pm)? 
I made sure to do this on one day of my challenge to see what it is really like.  As far as I can tell, the following are typically options in between meal periods: deli, soups, salad bar, grill, and pizza.  Some ideas for balanced meals from these options include: a turkey sandwich on whole wheat with a cup of vegetable soup, grilled chicken from the grill on top of a salad, hummus veggie wrap on a whole wheat wrap with fresh fruit on the side, a couple of slices of pizza with a side salad...
Any nutritional specifics to watch out for in a healthy diet?
If the only thing you take away from this challenge is that you need to eat SOMETHING, and REGULARLY, then that is a great lesson that a surprising amount of college students need to learn. The whole college experience is better if you’re properly fed and healthy!  I sometimes find that students are almost paralyzed by all of the nutritional minutiae out there and end up either not eating at all or eating the same things over and over because they can’t keep everything in mind at once.  They really lose sight of the fact that the brain and body work much better on any fuel rather than no fuel at all.  
Any advice toward deciding meal sizes or how frequently you should eat?
It’s been shown that the average student, who spends a lot of time sitting in class, tends to do better with roughly 3 meals, along with a snack or two to break up a period of 5 hours or more between meals. If you’re, say, a construction worker laboring on your feet all day, you might be able to get away with eating two big meals a day. If a student tried to do that they would likely feel very sluggish and sleepy sitting in class after eating a meal as large as one would have to eat if only eating two a day. They would also probably experience a drop in energy and focus during the long period between meals. Having more moderately sized meals with snacks to supplement will likely result in steadier energy levels and ability to concentrate. Your brain needs regularly scheduled fuel to run optimally!
Any diet recommendations for those with skincare concerns?
The link between diet and skincare doesn't actually have substantial scientific evidence, mostly because the design of those experiments tend to do a very inadequate job in controlling for the many variables that can impact someone’s diet and skin. The one thing that seems to have a potential effect, and only in a small fraction of people, is big fluctuations in blood sugar. So for people like that, a diet containing consistent meals and snacks to keep their blood sugar levels steady can help their acne. But keep in mind that acne is caused by a lot of different things, so there’s no one fix for everyone, especially not through diet. Eating regularly is never a bad idea anyway (see response to the last question)!
How important is water intake? What would you say to people that don’t “like” water? 
The value of water can be overhyped, just be sure to keep track of that urine color. Keep it on the lighter side! If you’re someone that exercises, it can actually be detrimental to drink too much water while working out so just be sure you’re properly hydrated beforehand. If you’d prefer something fizzier or sweeter you can get carbonated water and add some of your favorite juice or flavoring packets. Pretty tasty and low sugar!
Did anything stand out as the best "bang for your buck" option?
At C4 I had a great dinner made mostly from the entree line, so it was super inexpensive. In my blog I go into detail regarding my strong support of beans as the most cost-effective food, so check that out!
Favorite snack you frequented?
I would usually grab some of the fresh fruit from the stands in the dining halls. Otherwise, I had a delicious lemon and cream Chobani yogurt made with whole milk. Yum!
You’ve said you really like spicy food, any on-campus highlights?
I concocted a chipotle ranch sauce at C4 for my sweet potato, super good and spicy!  I also added jalapenos to a couple of my meals.  I’m always looking for a way to spice up my food and there seems to be plenty of ways on campus!
Do you have any advice for students pursuing a career as a dietitian?
Be sure to find a school that has an accredited dietitian program, whether it's for your bachelors or masters. If you wanted to work with nutrition but take a different route, you could otherwise go into exercise physiology and health coaching.  Feel free to reach out to me or Alexa (the other campus dietitian) to discuss your options in more detail!
Final piece of meal advice?
Think about it in this format: protein, starch, fruit or vegetable. Start with one that looks good based on what you see and work your way through the rest of the format. At the end you’ll have a plate of balanced nutrition! Of course, come see me for any more help!
Check out Julie’s blog for all the well-balanced meals you’ve been missing on campus and where to find them! 
Both Alexa Schmidt, RD, CDN, and Julie Lee, MS, RD, CDN are registered dietitians with Binghamton University Dining Services, working to enhance the health and well-being of students, faculty, and staff on campus. They provide guest lectures, nutrition programs, education materials, special diet management (i.e., celiac disease, food allergies), and more!
Contact them by phone or email, or stop by the office, to schedule your Nutrition Consultation. Nutrition Consultations are available to students, faculty, and staff free of charge, and aim to help people obtain peak mental and physical performance through attention to their diet. Topics typically discussed are: basic nutrition guidelines, eating healthy on and off campus, nutritional supplements, eating on the run, pre-and post-workout foods, guidelines for vegetarians, general health and wellness, and food allergies.
Julie Lee, MS, RD, CDN   
Office: Rockefeller Center 265   
Office Phone: 607.777.5413     
E-Mail: julie.lee@sodexo.com
Alexa Schmidt, RD, CDN
Office: Room 21, West Gym  
Office Phone: 607.777.2716    
E-Mail: alexa.schmidt@sodexo.com