How to Stay Healthy on Cafeteria Food (and other nutritionally-trying circumstances)

Whether you are a student dependent on cafeteria food, or are otherwise displaced from your home and usual regimen, such as during travel, maintaining your healthy diet can become quite a challenge. When someone has put in good effort to consciously improve their diet, and put their life on a new program, sooner or later, they face their first challenge of how to deal with a less than optimal situation of food available in an unusual context.

While “cafeteria food” has improved in some ways over the years, it is certainly not representative of the model diet I recommend to my patients. The nature of feeding a large group of people is that the lowest common denominators of convenience, familiarity, and price are the driving force behind the menu design, and preparation methods. Also, issues of keeping the cost down will play in, both from the point of view of the cafeteria, as well as from the budget-conscious needs of students. This generally means a lower quality of ingredients, which include the use of canned or frozen or otherwise artificially preserved foods, along with faster cooking methods, including a ubiquitous use of microwave ovens.

A few general points to consider, and adapt to your particular situation:

  • When you have little to no control over the food available to you, be sure to take care of the other aspects of your health as best you can. This includes exercise (see P.A.C.E. and Slow Burn), sleep, proper hydration.
  • There is nothing better for proper hydration than pure water, and the more you can leave behind sugary or caffeinated drinks, the better. Even fruit juices are too concentrated in sweetness, and not a good regular part of your diet.
  • The less control you have over your diet, and other aspects of your environment, the more important it is to do everything which you do to maintain a healthy state of mind. The impact of toxins or stress are greatly mitigated by a healthy immune system, which is made up both of physical as well as emotional factors.
  • Know which dietary typologies are the best for you, so that you can make the best possible choices within the available parameters. Some do better when their diet is carb-dominant, while others with a protein-dominant.
  • Supplement your diet, if you can, with a whole greens powder, which is a great way to take in a ton of nutrition in a very small package.
  • Celebrate if the cafeteria has even a half-decent salad bar — although it is not likely to be organic, this opens up much more freedom for you to offset a less-than-optimal main course with a  side dish much better than fries.
  • Choose the items which are prepared with healthier methods, such as baking or broiling instead of frying.
  • If you are conscious of maintaining a low-grain diet, try to find options where the bread can be left aside, such as ordering a burger without the bun. When available, stick to the more natural sugars (cafeterias will often have pieces of fruit available), rather than the dessert counter.
  • If it is possible, ask the kitchen to heat up your meal in an oven or stove top, rather than a microwave. This one is highly dependent on the resources and willingness of the staff.

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