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!

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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