Texas Tech University

Nutritionist Talks Daily Calorie Counts, Food Insecurity

Heidi Toth

March 9, 2015

Nutritionist Talks Daily Calorie Counts, Food Insecurity

Debra Reed discusses problems keeping students from a healthy lifestyle during National Nutrition Month.

students walking
How many calories should a student consume each day?

How many calories should the average person get in a day?

A master's student working with Texas Tech University nutritional sciences professor Debra Reed asked this question of Texas Tech students. The responses ranged from 200 to 10,000 calories.

The correct answer, for college-aged adults, is between 2,000 and 3,000 calories, depending on body size, gender and level of activity. That so many students had no idea how many calories they were getting, much less how many they needed, is a serious roadblock to healthy eating, Reed said.

“That's step one – people need to know how many calories they need per day,” Reed said.

March is National Nutrition Month, an annual awareness event the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sponsors to spark discussion on the importance of nutrition and physical activity. Reed used the opportunity to discuss the different challenges facing people in living a healthy lifestyle. Knowledge, while necessary, isn't the only or even the most important facet of healthy living. Having the option to be healthy is.

“We still need to work on individual knowledge and skills and motivation, but a very, very motivated, knowledgeable person cannot make healthy choices if those healthy choices are not in their environment,” she said.

grocery store
Finances may lead to calorie-dense and nutrient-light selections at the grocery store.

Hurdles to a healthy lifestyle

Texas Tech students, like university students throughout the nation, don't get enough whole grains, fruits or vegetables, according to another study by Reed. Students reported eating too many calorie-dense, nutrient-light foods.

That could be for a number of reasons, Reed said. Many people don't know enough about food safety or how to cook to make healthy food. That often leaves them with less healthy options: restaurants and prepackaged convenience foods.

Financial matters also play a role for many people. Often, though not always, the cheap food options are less healthy. An increasing number of college students don't have enough money for food. In recent years, colleges have established food banks on campus to help students who don't have money for food.

“There are ways to maximize your food dollars, but you still have to have some food dollars,” she said.

Additionally, college students are coming to college weighing more and having more undesirable eating and fitness habits than ever before. About 18 percent of 12- to 19-year-old Americans were obese in 2010 and another 15 to 20 percent were overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Finally, while individuals can make changes, systemic changes are needed as well, Reed said. Obesity is a national epidemic, and effectively combating it will require action from communities, schools, the health care system, urban planners and governments.

Focus on your activity level.

Making simple changes

Nutritionists used to focus solely on the balance between calories in and calories out. While they know it's more complicated now, a balance of healthy eating and physical activity can help keep people at a healthy fitness level.

“We definitely don't want to focus just on weight, but really focus more on fitness,” she said.

She encourages people to “find your personality match with physical activity,” be that tennis, running, yoga or fitness classes at the gym. Some people prefer a partner or a group, while others like working out alone. Americans just need to be active, she said. There's no one size fits all.

Good fitness should include balanced eating – whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy and lean meat. It's not about being as skinny as possible, Reed said. Fitness is about having a healthy body that can do the activities people want to do. Being skinny is not the same as being healthy.

“We can't just treat people one by one,” Reed said. “That's going to get us nowhere fast. We need more education efforts aimed at prevention.”

For more ideas and information on balanced eating, go to Choose My Plate.