Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
13 Feb

Dear Mark: College Meal Plan

Today’s Dear Mark is a fun one. The question comes from a college student saddled with a lackluster meal plan. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t Primal in the slightest. Worst of all, it’s obligatory, meaning she has no choice but to pay for all this food she doesn’t want to eat. Since I find this pretty appalling, I tried to help the student with a letter to the director of food service explaining what changes can and should be made to make the meal plan healthier. The changes I propose aren’t going to catch any of you off guard, but I tried to make them as palatable for someone who isn’t steeped in this stuff as I could.

Okay, enough blathering. Let’s just get to the question:

Dear Mark,

I am sending this message in order to ask your advice on how to navigate asking the college I attend to make changes to their food service in a more Paleo friendly manner. The school I go to is rather rigid with their meal plans, most students are forced to live on campus and are automatically signed up for the meal plan. A few friends of mine and I, are getting together to write a letter to the director of food service as well as the president about making some major changes to the meals they provide with the obligatory meal plan. Mostly I am asking for advice on how you would feel the best way to argue our case to these authority figures would be. In the letter we will be sending (and hopefully subsequent meetings), I want to maintain a level of respect for their positions as well as laws and policies regarding food service, but I am not so certain as to how willing they will be to admit flaws in the food they provide for students. Really any advice you can give would be helpful.

Thank you,


This is going to be tricky. You obviously can’t just come out and start calling for grains to be stricken from the menu or for grass-fed meat to be added, and I would recommend against demanding for the saturated fat content of meals to be increased across the board or even mentioning the words “paleo” or “Primal.” As is always the case when you’re proposing something as radical and farfetched as eating animals and plants, you need to be sneaky about how you go about doing it. And because you’re dealing with the head honchos, whose “authority” you are essentially questioning and whose egos may need coddling, you need to be even sneakier. I’m all for blatantly calling folks out, but you’re going to be eating what they provide for at least a couple years and you don’t want to turn them off right away. I do it here on MDA, but you don’t quite have that luxury (yet).

I’d write something like this:

Dear (insert titles and names here),

With the university meal plan being obligatory for students, we urge you to reconsider the composition and nutritional content of the meals. Our extensive research has concluded that the meal plan lacks an appropriate nutrient profile to support the intellectual rigor required to thrive in the university environment, and we have found it unable to foster our scholastic progress. As students immersed in an academic environment that demands diligence, boundless energy, and enthusiasm, we need to feed our brains and our bodies better nutrition. How we handle these four years at school will determine, in large part, how the rest of our lives and future careers play out, and access to better nutrition will give us the best chance at success. If we’re obligated to pay for the university meal plan, it’s only right that we get some say in determining the composition of that plan.

We have several suggestions that would go a long way toward making the university meal plan healthier, tastier, and more nutritious than current offerings:

1. A wider variety of unprocessed produce.

Vegetables and fruit provide several essential factors for optimal health: minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and soluble fiber. Minerals serve as building blocks for physiological structures (likes bones, teeth), hormones (like testosterone and thyroid hormone), and neurotransmitters. Without ample minerals in the diet, our bodies and our brains don’t work very well. Vitamins are vital compounds that play extremely important roles in mineral metabolism, tissue regeneration and growth, and digestive enzyme production. Antioxidants, found in colorful fruits and vegetables, help our bodies reduce oxidative damage and lower the risk of debilitating diseases. Providing both raw, steamed, and roasted produce in the form of leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and colorful fruits will ensure proper mineral, vitamin, and antioxidant intake.

Leafy greens include spinach, romaine lettuce, kale, chard, and collard greens.

Crucifers include broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

Colorful produce includes blueberries, raspberries, red cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, beets, bell peppers, strawberries, blackberries, and pomegranates.

2. Offer an unprocessed animal protein source.

Humans are natural omnivores. We require protein to build muscle, but it also serves other, just as important uses. Amino acids, of which protein is composed, break apart upon digestion and participate in many vital metabolic processes. Amino acids also provide structure for cells, and they are involved in cellular communication. Low protein diets can lead to muscle wasting, low energy, and fat gain. Higher protein preserves lean mass while limiting fat gainProtein is also extremely satiating, while a lack of protein in the diet can cause overeating.

There is always a meat source available at meal times, but rarely is it fresh and unprocessed. Burgers, pizza, and pasta with meat sauce are not equivalent to a pot roast or a roast chicken. We would like the option of eating meat without having to deal with a starchy, grain-based carbohydrate at the same time. Beef, lamb, chicken, pork, and fish are all excellent meat sources.

3. Offer tubers as a starch source.

Bread is nice for the students who want it, but seeing as how the incidence of sensitivity and intolerance to wheat is growing, grain-free options must be available to students. While grains are a cheap source of calories, they also carry a host of anti-nutrients that reduce mineral absorption, aggravate the intestinal lining, and cause inflammatory conditions. We would argue that potatoes, squashes, and sweet potatoes are just as inexpensive and calorie-rich but far more nutritious and absent the anti-nutrients present in grains. Many people, including us, are intolerant of or sensitive to grains, but very few have problems with potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Instead of solely serving pasta, bread, rice, and beans, offer potatoes, sweet potatoes, and/or squash.

4. Cook with olive oil or any other fat high in monounsaturated fat. Stop using soybean, corn, or canola oils.

Although they are inexpensive, soybean, corn, canola, and other vegetable/seed oils are excessively high in polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids. Experts suggest that the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is way out of whack in the Western diet and partially responsible for many of the chronic diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer) that plague us today. It’s impossible to reach the desired omega-3:omega-6 ratio of 1 if everything is cooked in high-omega-6 oils. Omega-6 fats accumulate in our tissues and are highly inflammatory. Furthermore, polyunsaturated fatty acids are unstable in the presence of heat, and cooking oxidizes them and renders the oils unhealthy and inflammatory. Extended cooking at high heats can even produce trans-fatty acids, which have been strongly linked to heart disease.

Monounsaturated (and saturated) fats are more resistant to heating. A recent Spanish study found that eating fried foods had no relationship to heart disease or all-cause mortality; in Spain, the oils typically used for frying are olive oil, high-oleic sunflower oil, and high-stearic sunflower oil.

Healthier options lower in omega-6 fats include olive oil, coconut oil, high-oleic sunflower oil, high-oleic safflower oil, and high-stearic sunflower oil.

5. Offer seafood a couple times per week.

While it’s important to reduce our intake of omega-6 fats, it’s also important to increase our intake of omega-3 fatty acids. The richest source of omega-3s is seafood: wild-caught fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel; farm-raised fish like trout; and both farmed and wild shellfish like mussels, clams, and oysters. In addition to omega-3 fats, seafood also provides important minerals like iodine and selenium, as well as high amounts of protein.

Serving fish or shellfish twice a week will improve the student body’s omega-3 intake.

These five simple changes have the potential to transform the health, happiness, and productivity of the student body. While implementing all five might slightly increase costs, implementing just one or two for now – changing the oils and offering more produce and protein, for example – will make a huge difference without breaking the bank. Besides, this is our health we’re talking about. This is our future we’re working toward. We don’t – we shouldn’t – want to take any shortcuts in this area.

Thank you for your time. We would like to arrange a formal meeting to discuss this matter further.


(Your names here)

That’s what I’ve got. It should give you a nice starting point. I stuck to research links, rather than links to “some guy’s blog.” I don’t know the exact situation with your meal plan, but based on what I’ve experienced and what I’ve heard from others, those five points should cover most of it. Assuming this will be a printed letter, I’d recommend that you annotate the text as you go and include a list of references at the bottom. If it’s an email, go ahead and include the hyperlinks. If there’s anything else I can do to help, let me know.

In the meantime, let’s have everyone else chime in. I know we have a ton of students out there, who are undoubtedly more intimately experienced with college meal plans than I am, so go ahead and give Emily your input. Let’s get a good brainstorm session going and see what we can come up with!

Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great work Mark. It is a shame that so many college meal plans lack a variety of nutrition that meets everyone’s needs. Sometimes they are just a collection of fast food restaurants.

    Darren wrote on February 13th, 2012
  2. I am a university student myself, thankfully I live off campus and cook for myself. Whenever i go to the dining halls in my school I am disgusted by the options, everything is bagels, sandwiches, pizza, etc. My school even recently took out the salad bar! It’s sickening to think that the school is poisoning their students who they expect to excel academically. Anyways, out of curiousity I went to go look at the food choices they have now (3 years after I left residence) and noticed that on the website it said that if students wanted they could talk to their food services to discuss their options due to allergies. I would advise you to go and talk to somebody and explain to them your “intolerances” (i said this so that they didn’t think I was being ‘picky’). Good luck!

    b wrote on February 13th, 2012

    Joe wrote on February 13th, 2012
  4. I think this post is fantastic, like so many that you post, Mark. Like many others have already posted, this is a tremendous resource as a basic guide as to why someone may want to consider making some switches to Primal eating habits. I have read many posts and articles, here and elsewhere, read The Paleo Solution, will someday (when I can make the time) read the Primal Blueprint book that my roommate recently purchased, but I often stumble over my explanations. This is a great, basic, go-to-explanation!

    As for meal plans, I also never participated in one; not since grade school, really (although I can remember pizza being on the menu once a week)! However, I have no doubt that anyone can use a reference like this and begin to change the face of nutrition in this country at some of the largest forums around…the college (and perhaps even high school) campuses. I hope all of you who are active in college will take advantage of this resource and form mini-revolutions everywhere!

    Kevin Goldman wrote on February 13th, 2012
  5. Mark.
    What do you think of this study, courtesy of/finding it on, Don Matesz website?

    I haven’t heard of anything positive about grains on any paleo type blog. Harris, Kresson etc.

    Barry wrote on February 13th, 2012
  6. I’ve been doing a little investigating of randomly chosen food management services at universities.

    Regarding providing a list of ingredients, even if the service is willing to do so they also tend to make a disclaimer about the manufacturer making changes to the food and the student ultimately being solely responsible for whatever they choose to eat, regardess. I smell lawyers, probably the university legal eagles.

    rarebird wrote on February 13th, 2012
  7. Personally I’d just get a waver for having to pay for a meal plan. Trying to change the food plan as a whole is admirable, but as far as yourself, it wouldn’t be that hard to argue for a special exception in your case.

    Josh Frey wrote on February 14th, 2012
  8. Amazing! =)

    Luke wrote on February 14th, 2012
  9. I need to send this letter to our local health region. The garbage that our hospitals expect patients to eat is revolting. My daughter spent a couple of nights there a while back and the children’s options were hotdog, chicken fingers or macaroni and cheese. And there was a letter for parents regarding nutrition asking that we please not feed our child outside food as healthy food was important for their recovery – um sure…

    Heather wrote on February 14th, 2012
  10. Wish I had this letter to send when I was a freshman in college! My school was the same way and required that you had a meal plan if you lived on campus. I simply moved off campus as soon as I could so I could buy my own groceries.

    Emily wrote on February 14th, 2012
  11. These are great suggestions, though I think it all depends on how large the university is. I was diagnosed with Celiac the day before I went to college, and I quickly found that they had next to nothing that was gluten free or contaminated with gluten. The university outright refused to refund my money for the meal plan even after letters from myself and my doctor. After a few months of working with them they brought in a few gluten free frozen meals for me but that was it. I spent most of my Freshman year living off of peanut butter, pre-made rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, and microwave rice. I can’t imagine what they would have done if I had asked for paleo meals! I hear they are far more accommodating at smaller schools though.

    Amber wrote on February 14th, 2012
  12. I haven’t read all the comments, but to me the obvious free market approach is to vote with your dollars. Meaning, do not to pay (i.e. subsidize) a university or school for goods/services you do not utilize or believe in. Higher educational institutions do not force people to attend; only public schools do that. A market is voluntary exchange.

    There are many “higher educational institutions” one can attend, and I use that description tongue in cheek given the obvious bubble in higher education, but everyone has a choice. Choices will be different for everyone. And if you are still not satisfied then exercise your entrepreneur spirit and do something about it. Start a food service linked to a meal plan. Challenge the school’s policy via petitioning, maybe even a lawsuit. First I’d check whatever paper work you signed to see what type of contract you willingly agreed to. But if you are paying for goods/services you do not like and you do nothing, shame on you.

    liberty1776 wrote on February 14th, 2012
    • Can you tell I discovered MDA via
      I am sure there are different paths one could pursue given a state university/college vs. a private institution. Regardless, every state has an attorney general. Contact them. File a suit in small claims courts for the equal cost of the meal plan tuition, money already paid, and maybe damages. Small claims court do not require a lawyer either or exuberant costs. Often bigger businesses and institutions do not show up for the court date and the plaintiff wins by default.

      liberty1776 wrote on February 14th, 2012
  13. I wish I saw this post during my college years. I was a pretty fat guy for most of college. I’m sure a lot of that was due to beer and “fourth meals” at Taco Bell, but the cafeteria options surely didn’t help. At times they would have good options–omelette bar, salad bar with grilled chicken and many veggies, etc.–but if you couldn’t make the “main meal” time, you were stuck with pizza and cereal. Not primal at all.

    Daniel Wallen wrote on February 14th, 2012
  14. I think the letter writer goes to Dartmouth.

    Kat wrote on February 14th, 2012
    • Seconded. Our beef and chicken isn’t grass-fed, is it?

      Emily wrote on July 20th, 2012
  15. This is a wonderful post.

    I grew up eating 95% Paleo, thanks to my mom’s cooking. Candy and desserts were only on birthdays (one slice per person) or holidays, and we had fresh rice and homemade sourdough bread, but not more than 3 or 5% of our calories.

    I was very healthy and strong until late of my first year of college.

    Bad food in college started my sickness right in the first year, which became so bad so I eventually dropped out in the second year. It got worse and worse and I had 5 years of sickness during which I couldn’t even seek employment.I finally cured my problems VERY QUICKLY after my mother made me eat Paleo again (after college I had become brainwashed by USDA guidelines in hope of fixing my problems so they only became worse and worse)

    So if fortunate students are lucky enough to know of Paleo, yes, indeed, I sure hope they will be able to have options available at the cafeteria! I sure didn’t!

    I tried to eat healthy, but I was forced to eat very low-fat and very low-protein! I basically survived on vegetable wraps which were the only healthy option! :-(

    Your letter to the university is so wonderful, I nearly cried!

    Strawberry wrote on February 14th, 2012
  16. AMEN! Back in my day not only was a food plan mandatory, not only was it filled with unhealthy options, but it was our ONLY option. We went to school in a very rural area, were not allowed to have cars on campus until our Junior year. Had I known about Primal, Paleo, or even any it it’s derivitives I would have LOVED to have a letter like this that I could send in.

    I feel this student’s pain, especially if this food source, like so many, is her only food source.

    I wish her luck and extend thanks to Mark on her behalf.

    Bellajgw wrote on February 15th, 2012
  17. Saw this article today and thought it might be relevant for some of the people trying to make a difference in their institutional meals…some providers are making a difference!

    Erin wrote on February 21st, 2012
  18. The campus where I am a graduate student and teach has implemented a health-awareness program and has done quite a bit of work to refocus its food offerings. In the shops area where the Wendy’s, Papa Johns, etc. are, posters are everywhere that include nutrition information for the food consumed at those places. Eating a double bacon cheeseburger with its bun, a side of fries, and a large coke is less enjoyable when you have to stare down the nutritional information on your meal. The dining halls have begun a sustainability effort as well. They attempt to use local ingredients whenever possible, especially in the spring/early fall months when fresh produce is available. And they help local vendors and farmers in the process. The school has also pushed a gluten-free menu. The dining hall has an area of entirely gluten-free foods, and one of the salad places on campus now serves gluten-free bread. Some of the gluten-free stuff isn’t always the healthiest, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’m quite proud of their efforts, and I’m happy to pay to eat in the dining hall once or twice a week just to support the work they are doing to provide healthier options to students. That could be one way dining services can supplement the increase in cost: new customers in the form of professors, visitors, etc.

    Nessa wrote on February 28th, 2012

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