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Buffalo State hopes better nutrition boosts student retention

Tanisha Simmons packed on more than 80 pounds in the decade after she graduated from the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts.

“I call myself a mall baby because the majority of my jobs during those years were in the mall,” Simmons said. “When you’re on your own and you’re working, you want the quick food.”

The 29-year-old SUNY Buffalo State fashion major replaced her former fast-food, pay-no-heed-to-ingredients life during this school year with a better approach to eating, thanks to a new nutrition counseling program at the region’s second-largest college.

Simmons was among 80 students to participate in the program, part of a larger effort to bolster Buffalo State wellness with an eye toward keeping more students in school until they graduate.

Only one in four students at the school graduates in four years, and slightly fewer than half do in six years – which ranks Buffalo State 24th out of 39 public, four-year colleges in New York State, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The aim of everything that we're doing here is to help students live a healthier lifestyle so they can be successful,” said Elizabeth Hartz, a registered dietitian and clinical coordinator of the Dietetics Center at the school.

Simmons, who wants to start her own shoe and clothing line after she graduates, will turn 30 this year. She has lost 16 pounds since Hartz started to counsel her about nutrition last November. She would like to return to her high school weight of 149 pounds by the time she graduates in the fall of 2020.

“If I can become more cognizant of what goes into my food, and eat better, then it’s going to do nothing but catapult me further in life and career,” Simmons said. “People are going to see the tenacity and the ambitions of what it takes to shed weight.”

Simmons, Hartz and others tied to the school nutrition counseling program shared tips on how it can teach students – and anyone – to be healthy and well.

Elizabeth Hartz, clinical coordinator of the SUNY Buffalo State Dietetics Center, starts students who receive nutrition counseling on the Fit-3D Body Scanner, which determines body fat percentage and other weight metrics. That will help her and students measure the progress they make. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Get real (food)

“There's a lot of people who are very much into supplements, and that can be a danger in and of itself,” Hartz said. “It's more about teaching people why the food they eat can be damaging or beneficial for them.”

The nutrition program encourages students to eat whole foods in proper portions, balancing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. Foods that are fried, loaded with salt, sugar, saturated fat – or all three – are discouraged as regular staples. Hartz also encourages participants to drink plenty of water, and steer clear of soft drinks and other sweetened beverages.

Read labels

Hartz runs the nutrition counseling program out of a couple of small offices in Caudell Hall. Participants start on the Fit-3D Body Scanner, which determines body fat percentage and other weight metrics. They then join her in a counseling room that includes written educational information, a plate filled with properly portioned, plastic food items and a giant food label on one wall.

Hartz encourages students to pay close attention to the daily allowance percentages of saturated fats, carbohydrates, sodium and sugars listed on the label. All should be low. She also encourages attention to calories and serving size per container – reinforcing the importance of proper portions.

Talk with a specialist

A certified nutritionist or registered dietitian can help you better understand how the way you eat impacts your health, and what changes in your diet can improve well-being. Their counsel is based on individual needs. Those with hypertension can learn constructive ways to lower salt and unhealthy fats in their diet, without sacrificing taste. Those with diabetes can learn more about good and bad carbohydrates, and how to choose the right foods to improve blood sugar levels, Hartz said.

Ask your primary care doctor to recommend a nutritionist;  eatrightwnyda.orgeatrightny.org, and eatright.org, the regional, state and national dietetic association websites, offer recipes, dietary guidance and help finding a registered dietitian.

Hartz and student dietetic interns brought lessons this spring into the Bengal Kitchen, a cafeteria-style dining hall in the Campbell Student Union. The interns began occasional “Dine with the Dietitian” talks during lunchtime. Hartz also worked with Chartwells, the food service management company on campus, and Kitchen Manager Jennifer DiFrancesco – a plant-based-trained chef – on an Orange Dot program, which helps students better identify foods with healthy ingredients and calorie counts. (The Independent Health Foundation’s Healthy Options Program takes a similar approach with dozens of restaurants in the region; learn more at healthyoptionsbuffalo.com.)

“A lot of times at the end of the day, students are going to the chicken wings and pizza, so the better job we can do offering great-tasting food options, the better we're going to be able to encourage a healthier lifestyle,” said Glenn Bucello, Chartwell’s resident district manager at Buffalo State.

Jonathan Poehigth, a a Buffalo State freshman, arrived at the school with high blood pressure. It has returned to the normal range since he enrolled in the school nutrition counseling program. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Set your benchmarks

Hartz starts with the basics during her first counseling session. What do you frequently eat for breakfast? Do you eat breakfast? Do you eat lunch? What do you usually snack on? Do you snack a lot? Do you snack late at night? “I will also have them take home a three-day diet record to fill out,” she said. “They have to fill out what time they eat, what they eat, the quantity. Was it low in sodium? Was it low in fat? Was it full-fat? They'll bring that in at the next counseling session, and I'll take a look and figure out calories, and evaluate all the nutritional aspects of it.”

Most who ended up in the nutrition program were referred after a checkup at the Weigel Health Center on campus because of high blood pressure, high blood sugar or other health concerns. Many of the diet accounts Hartz reads are filled with foods heavy in fat and carbs (think pizza, pasta, burgers and wings) and fried foods, and low in lean proteins (seafood, turkey, chicken, some beans), healthy fats (eggs, most nuts, avocadoes, olive oil, fatty fish like salmon), and fiber (whole grains, and many fruits and vegetables).

“Students have, generally speaking, a very low-fiber diet,” Hartz said. “They’re eating convenience foods all the time." They often skip breakfast, she said, which leads to cravings for carbs and sweets later in the day.

That sounds familiar to Simmons, who revamped her diet. She now plans meals, shops for what she needs to make healthy recipes, and carves out time each week to prepare healthy snacks and meals for her busy school and work weeks. She can check online for healthy meals in the Bengal Kitchen, uses the myfitnesspal and yummly apps to choose healthy foods and ingredients, and continues to touch base with Hartz every couple of weeks to help stay on track.

During a recent lunch in Bengal Kitchen, Simmons grabbed roasted Brussels sprouts, an olive and tomato salad, and shrimp and lentil soup. “Since I started with the nutrition center, I eat a lot more salad and a lot more soup,” she said. It’s a far cry from her old mall-day meals of Chinese food, subs, fries, and “deal of the day” soft drinks.

“If I’d known all this back then,” she said, “I would have saved money and eliminated a lot of the fast food I was eating.”

More than food

Many in the school nutrition program – including Jonathan Poehigth, a freshman from the Bronx who arrived on campus with hypertension – learned they had health challenges while in high school. Some have been non-medication compliant, Hartz said, saying that doctors who wrote prescriptions didn’t adequately explain the importance of regularly taking medications. “I'm at least trying to help them understand where they're at in the disease process and get them to their doctor so that they can get that medication again.” It’s helped Poehigth, who is exercising more, eating better, and back into the normal blood pressure range.

Hartz also stresses the importance of exercise and good sleep. She looks to help students improve time management and address stress, and encourages them to walk, run or use the school gym two to four times a week. She also can recommend mental health counseling available on campus, if needed.

Change takes time, persistence

Simmons has lost a half-dozen pounds several times during the last decade, before gaining it back – and then some. She believes that her latest, more comprehensive attempt gives her a better chance for long-term success. “I want to make sure I’m eating the correct portions, I’m eating more vegetables, and getting more exercise,” she said.

Hartz understands. She was overweight in high school before losing weight – and keeping it off – using the strategies she now teaches others. She hopes Buffalo State will one day open the program to staff and the public.

“I always try to tell people that these changes happen slowly,” Hartz said. “There's no magic pill, no magic bullet. You do wake up one day and everything's different, but it was because of all the small changes that you made.”

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