6 Tips for How to Eat Healthy at College
Ah, college life. It's a time that may be marked by frat parties, all-nighters, no rules, and (oh yes) weight gain. While there is some dispute as to whether the "freshman 15" is a real phenomenon, there is no denying college is when many young adults are making all their own food choices for the very first time. Unfortunately, those choices can be the kind that lead to extra pounds and poor health.
"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."
1: Beware the dining hall.
Let's be real. Most college dining halls aren't serving up gourmet meals, but depending on your meal plan, they can be a source of nearly unlimited food. It is important to learn how to portion out your meals.
Instead of loading up on food all day long, restrict your visits to specific times of the day and focus on well-rounded meals. We recommend starting at the salad bar and working your way from there. "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. That's a mistake that could have you hanging up your skinny jeans for the semester.
2: Fill the mini-fridge with healthy snacks.
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 equal. Fortunately, there's an array of inexpensive and tasty snacks that won't derail your attempt at healthy eating. Loading your dorm fridge with healthier treats can keep you going during a marathon study session and also help you avoid late night trips to the dining hall.
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.
"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.
3: Stop eating late at night.
Mindless eating seems to hit its peak late at night. Whether you're watching a movie with your roommate or stressing over tomorrow's exam, it's easy to start eating and not stop until all the food is gone.
Late night snacking isn't only a problem because it can lead to overeating. Many nutrition experts 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. What's more, 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."
4: Watch what you drink.
We're not just talking about alcohol here. Juice, soda, beer and hard alcohol are all culprits of 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 against heavy consumption of sodas, energy drinks and elaborate coffee concoctions. It may not be fun, but water really is your best bet for staying hydrated and healthy.
5: Skip the study sessions at the coffee shop.
Along the same lines, be careful where you schedule study sessions. It may be easy to meet at the coffee shop, a restaurant or even the local bar, but your body will thank you if you choose a spot where fatty foods and drinks are not readily available.
If you do decide you need some refreshment while studying, skip the double mocha lattes. "To cut down on the empty calories, opt for water, tea or calorie-free beverages," said Adam Bornstein, editorial director of the health and fitness website LIVESTRONG.com.
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." In other words, if you're downing lots of water, you'll be less likely to clean out the chips and salsa bowl while studying.
6: Quit eating fast food.
From burritos as big as your head to subs delivered to your dorm door, college campuses are magnets for fast food joints of all kinds. Business owners know college students tire of the dining hall and are often looking for a quick fix when hunger hits.
However, fast food places are notorious for being havens of unhealthy food. The convenience might be nice, but once you fall into a fast food habit, you may find it very difficult to stop. Our advice is to avoid fast food altogether. Even better, stick to the dining hall for most of your meals and make smart decisions while you're there.
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."
Bonus tip: Find an active hobby.
Eating healthy can keep weight gain in check, but it's only one half of the equation. You should also be staying active if you want optimal health.
Fortunately, college life makes it easy to get your daily dose of exercise. You're probably already walking all over campus to get to class, and your college may give you a free membership to the school fitness center. Plus, there are intramural sports, and you could probably take a phys ed class for credit.
Besides keeping the pounds off, keeping fit in college can help you sleep better, reduce stress levels and make it easier to deal with the inevitable ups and downs that accompany your first year away from home. And burning calories every day will let you splurge in an occasional night on the town without worrying about wearing the after effects on your hips for months to come.
The guidelines for how to eat healthy in college are relatively simple, but it's up to you to put them into practice. You may realize that the habits (good or bad) that you start in college will follow you into the real world.