Laura Martorano, MS, RD, CDN, is helping college students find—and experience for themselves—the link between eating nutrient-rich foods and feeling focused, balanced and stress-free. At Stony Brook University, finals week brought its usual stress, but this year, the studying blues are paired with unprecedented pandemic stress.
COVID-19 took so many things from so many communities, and Martorano says one of the major things has been dining on campus.
“Dining halls used to be a place for relaxation and socialization with their friends, but now with the limited seating and takeout, it limits the amount of socialization or ‘mental breaks’ tremendously,” she says.
Martorano has been connecting with many students via Zoom calls, and she’s found that many of them mention how tough it is to just take a break. “They’ve been mentioning that because many classes are virtual, they receive extra work from their professors and find it difficult to take a break,” she says. “Another obstacle is possible weight fluctuations students have by not moving as frequently as they once did…from my experience college students have various issues at hand; however, common issues are overeating, undereating, missing meals and or reverting to comfort foods.”
Campus Dining at Stony Brook created Strengthen Against Stress, a dietitian-led informational resource that spells it out for students: the foods that contain brain-supporting ingredients, which nutrient-rich foods can decrease inflammation, lower blood pressure and help with stress cravings.
“I explain to students how eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods can help to feel focused, balanced and aid in combatting stress,” Martorano says, adding that brain health means more than just acing exams. “There is something called the brain-gut connection where everything starts in your gut and unhealthy food can disrupt the gastrointestinal tract and cause additional problems.”
Martorano has done a lot of research on the brain-gut connection, in which a poor diet is connected to mental issues like depression, anxiety and paranoia.
To bring it all into focus, the program starts with one plate.
“The first thing I educate students about is building a better plate,” Martorano says. “A lot of students do not fill their plate with all the food groups. Skipping a food group can lead to increased cravings, overeating, altered blood sugars and/or weight gain.”
Martorano encourages students to seek out foods that boost their immunity and decrease inflammation. “Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that can really help decrease inflammation and help increase your immune system,” she says, adding that it’s not just citrus that contains the boost. “Vitamin C can even be found in broccoli. And superfoods are great to incorporate when building a plate. Avocados, legumes and mushrooms are great choices to help decrease inflammation and help boost immunity.”
Up next: a universitywide fitness challenge and an expansion of the healthy teaching kitchen program.
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