Improving Nutrition at MIT

Working Toward Better Practice, Better Options

There is no way around fueling your body if your hope is to have success, energy, and health. Many MIT students lack the basic nutritional balance needed to perform at their highest cognitive and/or physical potential.

We as a community need to work toward a way of eating that meets the needs of every student in all their roles — as driven academics and researchers, competitive athletes, and developing adults. We at the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness want to share with you our core philosophy about nutrition at MIT, a philosophy that meets students where they are, helps them make choices within our current options, and teaches students to use their “consumer” power to increase the variety of healthy eating opportunities.

Here is what we know to be in good practice. Most of the research about how nutrition connects to performance, health, mood, and energy can be summarized into these six simple tips. As you read, consider if this is easy or challenging here at MIT. (For more information, see http://web.mit.edu/medical/wellness/eatwell/.)

1. Do not skip meals — eat at least three times a day.

2. Select whole grains whenever possible.

3. Remove trans fats from your diet; read your food labels.

4. Select lean and/or low fat dairy and meat.

5. Consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

6. Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

Currently, MIT allocates a certain dollar amount for room and board in the undergraduate financial aid package, but leaves the choice on how to spend that food money to the individual. For students skilled at budgeting, shopping, and cooking, this can feel like a wonderful personal choice. What about students without those skills? Or students with other financial pressures? There are many students who hit this campus with no plan or budget for how they will eat.

What we find in our practice is that less than ideal eating patterns take hold early and are difficult to change later on. Under the academic challenge of the science core, even students with the best of intentions can find it difficult to eat well consistently.

Student groups are coming together to address barriers to eating well at MIT. A group of students, called the Fruit Frontiers, is working to increase access to and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. (A recent survey showed that as few as 7 percent of MIT students get the recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables.) The Student Health Advisory Committee has selected nutrition concerns as one of their primary platforms for the year. Many students have volunteered their time and ideas to the Blue Ribbon Dining Committee as well. Wonderfully, individual students have also taken direct action — asking for healthier options like whole grains at various local food vendors.

Each student on this campus has a role to play in making eating well possible. Work with a group or department trying to make things easier or better. Advocate for healthier study breaks, events, and “free food” options on campus. Finally, be open-minded and consider solutions that not only ensure choice, but provide and guarantee practical and effective options for every student on this campus.

Julie A. Banda is a health educator at the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness at MIT Medical. She can be reached at banj@med.mit.edu.