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9 Dining Hall Foods That Aren't as Healthy as You Think


With so many different food options to choose from in the dining hall, you'd think that it'd be easy to find some healthy choices. But finding food that will make your body happy is actually trickier that it may seem! Some foods have hidden fat and calories, others have unexpected ingredients and others are consistently served in disproportionately large serving sizes. Get ready to be surprised by these nine dining hall foods that aren't as healthy as they sound! 

1. Fat-Free Salad Dressing  

What's the first thing that comes to mind when the word "healthy" is mentioned? Probably salad. And what could be healthier than a bowl of leafy greens with your favorite dressing, minus the fat? Seems like a win-win, but fat-free dressings can actually do damage to what you thought was a healthy salad.

According to a Purdue University study, in order to get the most vitamins, minerals and carotenes from salad, you need to pair it with some oil or fat so the nutrients can be fully absorbed and utilized by the body. This means that if you don't have any fat in your salad, you might not be getting the full benefits of many of the nutrients in the salad. Fat-free dressings also tend to replace the fat with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, which is linked to liver problems and weight gain.

So next time you're having a salad, try using a teaspoon to half a tablespoon of dressing containing olive oil or vinegar, squeeze on some lemon juice as natural dressing or get a small scoop of hummus on your salad so both your health and your taste buds will thank you!

2. Multigrain and Wheat Bread

Multigrain and wheat bread may sound extremely healthy, but they may not actually contain whole grains! A lot of the time these breads are made with refined grains, which means that you're not getting the full benefit of whole grains. "Refined grains are hard to stay away from in the dining hall–but if you know what to look for, you will be set," says Rachel Paul, a registered dietitian and food expert for college students. "Look for whole-grain options, like brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and bread, oatmeal, quinoa, barley, etc."

To make sure you're getting whole grains and not refined grains, it's a good idea to check the nutrition labels first. If the first flour on the ingredient list says "bleached" or "unbleached enriched wheat flour," the bread is made with refined flour. On the other hand, if the first ingredient listed contains the word "whole," as in "whole wheat flour" or "whole oats," the product is probably predominantly whole grain. Not only will these whole-grain options give you more fiber, vitamins and minerals than refined grains, they’ll keep you fuller for longer and aid with digestion.

3. Smoothies

These delicious blends of fruits and vegetables are a great way to start the morning off or keep you going through the day. If you're getting your smoothies from the dining hall or coffee bars on campus, however, watch out for disproportionately large serving sizes, as well as added sugar and ice cream to make them taste better. The Fit 'N Fruitful Smoothies at Jamba Juice, for example, contain about 300 calories and 40 grams of sugar for a small size.

"Remember that portions served are often bigger than what you need, so pay attention while eating and stop when [you’re] full," says Mary Hartley, a registered dietitian from New York. Even the smallest size at most smoothie shops is often double the amount you should be drinking! While the standard size for a smoothie is 22 ounces, 8 ounces is actually what you should be aiming for.

To avoid all the extra sugar, calories and fat, you can also try ones made from just fresh fruit, vegetables, milk and yogurt instead of from sweetened fruit juices, frozen yogurt, syrups and ice cream. The simpler, the better!

4. Turkey Sandwiches

When all else fails, sandwiches are usually the answer in the dining hall. But while a sandwich is an easy go-to meal, you still have to choose carefully. While turkey is a great source of lean protein, many packaged turkey slices are actually loaded with sodium. A single serving of some brands can contain almost a third of the maximum recommended daily sodium intake! So if you can, go for the low-sodium kinds or for fresh turkey slices.

Sandwiches are also usually made on white bread, which is lacking in nutrients. "White carbohydrates in general lack many nutrients whole grains naturally contain, like fiber, which keeps food moving through your body," Paul says. "A good alternative is to ask your chef to use whole-wheat bread and even add some veggies if he’s feeling up to it. Bring him the a few slices of tomato and cucumber from the sandwich station to ease the process."

Your condiments influence the nutritional value of your sandwich, too. Avoid mayonnaise and other creamy condiments like dressings, or at least go easy on them. A tablespoon of mayo packs in about 94 calories and 10 grams of fat, and the average tablespoon of ranch dressing has about 70 calories and 8 grams of fat. Your best bet is mustard or something with healthier fats, like avocado spread or hummus.

5. Premade Salads

What, the salads are striking out again? Unfortunately, you can't automatically assume that all things with the word "salad" in it are healthy, especially when it comes to mayo-based salads. While a lot depends on ingredients and portion size, prepared lettuce-based salads along with premade mayo-based salads (like tuna, egg and potato salads) can have hidden fat and calories.

"These salads are not inherently ‘bad’ if made well, but often they are full of mayonnaise, which is usually high in fat and calories," Paul says. "A better alternative would be to have plain tuna, hard-boiled eggs or a baked potato. Spice it up with one tablespoon of a creamy dressing like Caesar."

Or, make your own salad at the dining hall salad bar and then take it to go in a Tupperware if your dining hall allows it. That way, you can have a say in what goes in your body!

6. Breaded Fish and Chicken

When most of us see "breaded cod," we get tunnel vision and see only the fish part. As innocent-sounding as "breaded" is, though, anything breaded or fried adds extra fat, calories, refined grains and sodium.

"Ask for grilled or baked options instead, like grilled chicken or a baked potato," Paul says. "You’ll thank yourself later!"

Not only do grilled foods have fewer calories, they also have a higher nutritional content and a reduced fat content, which helps lower bad cholesterol levels in your blood.

7. Pesto

Pesto is green, like most vegetables, so you'd think it would be great for your health. However, pesto is surprisingly high in fat and calories because of all the oil and pine nuts, which contain healthy fats but are very caloric. So if you're concerned with watching your weight, try some tomato sauce on your pasta instead.

And while you're on a roll, try switching out white pasta for whole-wheat pasta. "Whole-wheat pasta contains more fiber and naturally more B vitamins than refined grains, keeping your digestion moving along and your energy level high," Paul says.

8. Yogurt Parfaits

Yogurt, fruit and granola sound harmless enough... right?

Paul says otherwise. "Sweetened yogurt (any yogurt that is not plain) is actually very high in added sugar," she says. "Granola on the top of parfaits is also high in added sugar and calories."

In fact, half a cup of granola at University of Michigan dining halls contains a whopping 287 calories, 16 grams of fat and 12 grams of sugar! The fruit that you find in fruit-flavored yogurt is also made with a lot of preservatives and sugar, so you're not actually getting all the health benefits of fresh fruit.

Luckily, there's a super easy alternative to this yummy snack. Just mix plain Greek yogurt with fruit and sprinkle on some whole-grain cereal on top if you’re craving a crunch!

9. Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter

There's really nothing like a good, old-fashioned peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. You may think that you're doing yourself a favor by replacing regular peanut butter with the reduced-fat variety, but it might not necessarily be healthier. Both contain around the same amount of calories, but reduced-fat peanut butter typically has more sugar. Regular peanut butter is also a great source of good monounsaturated fats, which the reduced-fat variety has less of. Look for a natural peanut butter with no added oils, and you'll be all set to go!

Although hidden calories, sugar, salt and fat are good things to look out for, it's always important to remember that all foods can fit into a healthy diet in moderation. "When eating in the dining hall, it is always a good idea to eat the foods you enjoy, but eat less," says Marissa Garcia, a registered dietitian at the University of Connecticut. "Try taking smaller portions or using smaller plates. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables to make your meals more nutritious and flavorful." 

Paul also stresses reaching a balance in the foods that you eat. "Look for WHOLE foods—not the store, I mean actual foods in their whole form," Paul says. "At meal times, your plate should comprise of equal amounts of whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables. Complete your meal with a side of low- or non-fat dairy. If you follow these guidelines, your body will be full and you will have the right nutrients to work hard and play hard."

Many colleges list the menu information on their dining halls' websites, so it's a great idea to plan out a healthy, balanced meal before you step foot in the dining halls. "Planning ahead is a great way to make smarter eating decisions," Garcia says.

So while some dining hall foods may not be as healthy as you think they are, don't be too alarmed! There are a lot of great alternatives, and they're still perfectly okay to eat as long as you stick to the "everything in moderation" rule.

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