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4 tips for healthy eating at college

For many students, their freshman year of college marks the first time they have lived away from home for any extended period of time, and with that transition comes a barrage of new experiences.

Culinary Arts

Frat parties. No curfews. Dorm life. And yes, eating what you want, when you want.

"Most freshman gain weight because they start eating late at night, eat when they are not hungry and make poor food choices," according to the higher education dieticians at ARAMARK, an institutional food supplier. "For students who are away from home for the first time, having the freedom to eat whatever you want often triggers overeating."

But carving out healthy eating habits isn't easy. After all, college is a land of all-you-can-eat dining halls and ubiquitous late-night pizza delivery. Nutrition experts caution students to take this part of college life seriously, and to lay the foundation for a healthy lifestyle that they will carry with them throughout their lives.

"It is important to recognize that this is truly the first time that we begin to make all food decisions on our own," said Megan Kniskern, a clinical nutrition manager at the Rosewood Center for Eating Disorders in Tempe, Ariz. "So it is necessary to explore things that we enjoy and also recognize that in order to best take care of ourselves, good nutrition requires some effort."

In that spirit, here are a few pointers from the experts:

All you can eat doesn't mean you should

On the typical college campus, students will find a dining hall where the meals are served buffet-style. It's not uncommon to see diners heading back for a third or even fourth helping -- college-campus food is much better than it used to be. Use "all you can eat" in your favor by trying some healthy food you might not normally try.

"Eat with balance, variety and moderation. Just because a wide array of foods are available, doesn't mean you have to eat all of them every day," said Juliet Zuercher, a registered dietician and nutrition coordinator at Timberline Knowls Residential Treatment Center outside of Chicago.

Jaime Seidner, a registered dietician and professor at Miami Dade College, offers this tip: "Use a salad plate, instead of the dinner plate, to help control portions." So what should go on that plate? Campus dining halls are typically packed with fried foods, heavy sauces and sweets. And all too often students neglect to visit the salad bar, fruit bar or add vegetables to their plate. Nutrition experts counsel otherwise.

Advises Seidner: "Start at the salad bar for plenty of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber and don't leave before hitting the fruit bar -- you can take two fruits to go. Make room for whole grains like sweet potatoes and lentils for B vitamins and fiber -- they're usually hidden so remember to seek them out."

Snack smart

Of course you're not going to do all of your eating at the dining hall. Snacking is a part of life, particularly at college. But not all snacks are created equally. Fortunately, there's an array of inexpensive and tasty snacks that won't derail your attempt at healthy eating. For proteins, try unsalted nuts, Greek yogurt and peanut butter. For veggies, consider cherry tomatoes and baby carrots. And granola bars, oatmeal and certain cereals can provide great sources of grains. It's easy to keep nuts, peanut butter, crackers and bread on hand in your dorm room, and if you have a mini-fridge in your room, you're way ahead of the game.

"When snacking, try to include foods from at least three food groups such as a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread and an apple on the side or a handful of Triscuits with three to four dice-size cubes of cheese and a bunch of grapes or carrot sticks," Sheehan-Smith suggested.

Late-night munchies

Many nutritionists counsel smaller portions, and more of them, to fill out a day's food intake. "Going too long without eating causes irritability and lack of focus," said Zuercher. "Maintaining blood sugar levels not only keeps energy levels high but enables better study [and] learning habits."

But it gets tricky when eating late at night. Many nutrition expert advise against eating just before you go to bed, in part because that puts the burden of digestion in conflict with a good night's sleep, and because certain food types will get stored as fat. And those concerns are magnified when the late night snack is junk food, as is often the case with college students.

"Avoid late night eating -- snacks such as ice cream and chips and pizza," said Laura Moore, the clinical trials manager at University Hospitals Case Medical Center. "Late-night eating tends to be unhealthy high calorie food that doesn't get digested well and ends up being extra calories that put on weight."

Hold your liquor -- and the latte

It's a gross understatement to observe that alcohol and campus life share a long and sometimes inglorious history. The fact is, for many students, alcohol is a part of college life -- and college weight gain. "Typically the 'freshman 15' is a result of binge drinking," said Zuercher. "As counter-cultural as it may be, when of legal age, drink alcohol responsibly."

Adds Dr. Michael Nusbaum, Medical Director at the Obesity Centers of New Jersey: "There are hundreds, even thousands of calories in those beers or mixed drinks. If you think of them as fat going right to those places you least want them to go, then perhaps you'll limit your alcohol intake." Also, when you've had a couple drinks, it's easy to lose track of the chicken wings, pizza, and other foods that go so well with booze.

Booze isn't the only liquid that can undercut a healthy diet. Experts caution again heavy consumption of sodas (particularly the non-diet variety), energy drinks and elaborate coffee concoctions.

"The drinking usually occurs during your study time," said Adam Bornstein, editorial director of the health and fitness website LIVESTRONG.com. "To cut down on the empty calories, opt for water, tea or calorie-free beverages."

Smart beverage selection can also help with keeping your appetite in check."Stay hydrated," said Seidner. "A lot of times our bodies confuse thirst with hunger, so load up on low- or no-calorie drinks."

Don't wait until next summer to find out you've gained 15 or more pounds over your freshman year. Weigh yourself every few weeks, and pay attention to how your clothes fit. The best way to nip the freshman 15 in the bud is to catch it when it's the freshman four or five.

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