It's hard to avoid stereotypes when it comes to the 18-to-24 age group of college students and their peers. Alas, most of the stereotypes are true, at least when it comes to health.
They don't eat right, exercise enough or get enough sleep. Depending on the time of day, they drink too much coffee, soda or beer, and never enough water.
The male of the species tends to eat too much, the female not enough. They want to look hot, or cool or buff, and in the process turn to unsafe products, diets and exercise regimens.
An old joke says the basic four college food groups—alcohol, sugar, caffeine and grease—make Irish coffee nature's perfect food.
And most of them spend little time worrying about any of this.
"There's that magic point at 18 or 24 when they're bulletproof," says Todd Whitthorne, president of Cooper Concepts, a division of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas that produces the Cooper Complete line of nutrition products. "They can eat anything; they can get away with anything."
As the father of a 16-year-old son and a college freshman daughter, 19, Whitthorne knows that this is not a demographic segment that cares much about supplements. "That's long before you start realizing that you're mortal," he says. "Believe me, I know."
But that feeling of immortality doesn't keep young adults from needing supplementation. Research shows that even a person who eats a healthy and balanced diet can benefit from a daily multivitamin and an omega-3 supplement.
"Healthy and balanced" hardly describes the standard student diet, despite wellness initiatives that have replaced mystery meat and Cap'n Crunch with organic fruits and vegetables and whole-grain breads on many campuses.
What should young adults be supplementing?
Calcium. Typically, the body continues to build bone until the late 20s. Especially in women, building plentiful calcium stores and bone density when young is the best defense against osteoporosis and fracture in later years. Student nutrition advisers at Yale-New Haven Hospital tell people under age 20 to take 1,300 milligrams a day of supplemental calcium, falling to 1,000 milligrams per day for 20- to 25-year-olds. They also advise students to check the label for U.S. Pharmacopeia designation, which certifies solubility, potency and purity.
Vitamin D. The recommended daily dose of vitamin D—a fat-soluble vitamin that is necessary for growth, aids in absorption of calcium and may guard against certain cancers—has increased among many practitioners from 400 IU to 1,000 IU in the last two years, Whitthorne says. A meta-analysis of 63 studies published in the American Journal of Public Health in December 2005 suggested that the link between insufficient vitamin D and cancer risk "is as clear as the link between smoking and lung cancer."
Essential fatty acids. Vital for the brain, which doesn't stop developing until a person's mid-20s, omega-3s "play a tremendous role in our mood and mood maintenance," Whitthorne says. "I think the cognitive benefits are over?whelming." Omega-3s are also cardioprotective, but while Whitthorne says "you can't talk to young adults about cardiac health," a message about improved mood and better focus may be better received.
B vitamins, including B6, B12 and folic acid. The vegetarian population among young adults is higher than average and rising, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group. Vegetarians and vegans often suffer from deficiencies in B complex, because vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in meat and seafood, and B6's chief sources are animal proteins. Deficiencies lead to problems ranging from acne to neurological damage. Folic acid is critical in young women who are considering pregnancy.
Vitamin C. Young women need more C than men, according to a Vanderbilt University study published in 2001 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. While five or more servings a day of fruits and vegetables will cover most people's vitamin C requirement, not enough young people get those five servings.
Even student athletes, Whitthorne laments, don't do what they should to maintain their fitness and energy. A friend who coaches a top-ranked university volleyball team asked Whitthorne, who co-hosts nationally syndicated radio and television programs with Aerobics Center founder Dr. Kenneth Cooper, to come talk to his athletes.
"He said, 'I've got girls who are the best of the best, and they eat worse than any group I have ever seen.' I would have thought that if you're an elite athlete, you'd be eating better, but in their minds, anything can go into the machine."
Cooper's athletic formula contains higher levels of antioxidants vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and selenium, for athletes whose workouts subject them to greater oxidative stress than an ordinary person.
At the Moscow Food Co-op in Moscow, Idaho, Wellness Manager Carrie Corson sees a lot of University of Idaho students buying food and gifts, but not so many shopping in the supplement aisle.
"They're not our store's primary customer," she says. When they show up in her section, students are usually looking for cold remedies or immune boosters. "Emergen-C, we sell it by the truckload. Cold Snap, cough drops … There's an awareness of some of the herb products and homeopathy too."
A good food-based multivitamin is her advice for young customers, with iron for women. "In that age group, people are looking for the one-a-day product," such as Nature's Plus Source of Life, Natural Factors, Solgar or Rainbow Light multis. Good potency and a small tablet size appeal. The co-op's private-label supplement line is also popular for its modest price—another key factor when selling to young adults.
Another part of selling to student-age customers is to counsel them when they come looking for products that may not be appropriate, such as cleanses, Corson says. "They're trying to change their lifestyle, and they read something about a cleanse and come in wanting to try it."
Young adults are tempting targets for "any product that is going to magically regulate your metabolism, to lose weight or lean up," Whitthorne says. This goes well beyond natural products. "You've got a lot of girls toying around with anabolic steroids. Kids are willing to do or experiment with anything."
A far better lifestyle change would be regular exercise and breakfast every morning, Whitthorne says—plus a multi and a gram or two of omega-3 oil. "I know the struggles of trying to communicate with this age group," he adds. "I tell them it's just a matter of habit. It's going to improve your immunity and make you smarter. They're supplements—they're not replacements."
Lisa Everitt is a freelance writer in Arvada, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 100