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Nutrionist helps students eat for cognitive power

By Joanne Nesbit

hicken soup may be good for what ails you, but it takes a more complex diet than that to feed the brain. How physical health supports mental efforts that can lead to a winner's edge is called "Brain Food." It is the most popular program nutritionist Paula Herzog gives for students in U-M residence halls.

"We're talking about all four food groups," Herzog says, "We're looking for time-released energy and hydration for good brain activity. This means drinking at least a half gallon of water each day and avoiding the major dehydrators during the week of exams: alcohol and excessive caffeine found in coffee, tea and colas."

The second step is to eat what Herzog calls "time-released" energy foods every four to six hours during the student's sometimes extended waking hours. Time-released energy foods include combinations of carbohydrates, proteins and fats from the foods in the four major food groups. No need to spend time selecting elaborate menus during this time of concentrated study. Small meals such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with milk or a bean burrito with cheese and salsa will do the trick. Even cereal with a banana and whole milk or a bologna sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise will become time-released fuel for efficient brain activity. But don't forget the water.

The eating behavior of students at U-M and any other college or university is based on choices. Herzog collaborates with the University Health Services to help students make wise choices. "We don't intrude or baby-sit," she says "We respect the students as adults, but recognize that we are actually helping phase them towards adult health habits."

That road to adulthood can be pretty bumpy, and we're talking about more than acne here. Among these "bumps" is: how to follow special diets for allergies and diabetes in an "all-you-can-eat" smorgasbord every meal. Herzog helps the students adapt their special needs in the residence halls dining rooms for practice out in restaurants and eventually, when they are on their own recognizance in off-campus living.

Other bumps in the road to healthy adult eating styles include disorder eating. "These trendy low-fat and no-fat diets are so unsatisfying that they can lead to bingeing," Herzog says. "With no fat grams, vital organs suffer because many foods that contain some fat are our most protein- and mineral-rich foods and are often avoided by dieters. The immune system can be suppressed. The students are tired and they don't do well on tests. In fact, they can be malnourished. And they may cut even more calories to make room for alcohol."

Herzog doesn't try to sermonize the students into following sound diets. She prefers to station herself in residence hall dining rooms, using her lap-top computer. Students wonder what sort of data she's analyzing so they get into conversation about nutrition.

Compared with higher education's other registered dietitians and nutritionists, Herzog says she has yet to find anyone else who regularly interacts with students in dining halls and in classes she teaches in the halls. Her counterparts are generally more involved in defining menus, helping chefs or testing recipes. But Herzog is out there on the cafeteria line, willing to answer any question students have about their diets.

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