How to Eat Healthy in College: Tips to Help You Succeed
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Learning how to eat healthy in college may be challenging, but it's not impossible. Whether you rely on a meal plan in the college dining hall or cook your own meals in an off-campus apartment, you can find healthy, satisfying options that will fuel your body and give you the energy you need to perform at your best.
More and more schools are catering to the growing desire for healthier options by offering a wider range of nutritious foods in their dining halls. The pizza and burgers are still there, but you can also find lower-calorie options that offer more nutritional value. And locating healthy options in the grocery store is mostly a matter of knowing what to look for. If you want to eat healthy, you have plenty of choices.
The trick is knowing how to make good choices. That means arming yourself with some basic information. We've compiled some general guidelines on healthy eating as well as specific tips to help you navigate the college dining hall. We've also included some tips on how to eat healthy when you're responsible for preparing your own meals off campus. Read through the following information to learn more about how to eat a healthy diet in college.
- 6 general tips for healthy eating
- Why can it be hard to eat nutritiously in college?
- How to eat healthy in a college dining hall
- How to stick to a healthy diet when you live off campus
- Healthy snacks to have on hand
6 General Tips for Healthy Eating
It can be tough to figure out how to eat healthy in college if you don't understand some basic facts about healthy eating in general. Here are a few tips to get you started on the right track:
1. Go all natural as much as possible.
The closer a food is to its natural state, the more health benefits it will offer. Over-processed foods have fewer nutrients and more questionable additives. If you see more than five ingredients on the label, or you notice large amounts of added fat or sugar, the food is probably not going to offer you much in the way of nutrition. You may choose to eat some of these foods anyway; we're all human, and it's OK to indulge once in a while. Just do the best you can.
2. Avoid sugar.
High-sugar items like cookies, cakes, pastries, sodas, and even ketchup contain few essential nutrients and offer little more than empty calories. An occasional sugary treat is fine, but tread carefully. Even if you don't add any sugar to your meal yourself, you may be consuming more of it than you realize. Many schools post the nutritional details of their food online, so pay attention to what you're eating. Read food labels whenever possible.
3. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
Whether fresh or frozen, fruits and vegetables are a good source of nutrition. They're low in calories, but they offer fiber, vitamins, and minerals that your body needs. That's why many experts recommend filling half your plate with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Filling up on those first before going for the main course can give you a better nutritional balance.
4. Watch your portion sizes.
This can be particularly difficult in a dining hall where endless amounts of food are freely available. If possible, choose a smaller plate at the buffet and only fill it once. Familiarize yourself with actual serving sizes (for instance, one serving of protein is about the size of a deck of cards). Restaurants have notoriously large portions—when eating out, split an entree with a friend or ask the server to box up half your meal so you can eat it later.
5. Drink lots of water.
Try to load up on water even if you don't feel thirsty. It can be easy to mistake mild dehydration for hunger. Staying properly hydrated is good for your skin and organs and goes a long way toward staying healthy. This is especially true if you follow a college fitness routine—it's important to replace the fluids you lose through sweating.
6. Try not to wait until you're starving to eat.
That's a recipe for binge eating, especially in an all-you-can-eat environment full of calorie-dense options. Don't skip breakfast—you need food to rev up your metabolism and boost your energy levels. Aim to have three meals a day at regular intervals (and try not to go more than five hours between meals). If your class schedule doesn't allow for that, keep a few healthy snacks in your bag to tide you over until your next meal time.
Why Can It Be Hard to Eat Healthy in College?
Even if you already know how to eat healthy in college, you may not have made it a priority. With the social pressures, busy schedules, budget constraints, and elevated stress levels that often come with college life, it's no wonder that diets can sometimes go off the rails. Consider these statistics:
- 95.4 percent of college students do not eat the recommended five or more servings of fruit or vegetables per day; 8.3 percent of them don't eat any1
- 37.8 percent of college students are overweight or obese1
- 68 percent of college students go to fast food restaurants at least once a week2
- 43 percent of college students say they can't afford to eat balanced meals3
For many students, college is the first time they are on their own and are entirely responsible for themselves. With no one hovering over you to make sure you eat properly, it can be easy to go overboard, particularly when you're surrounded by a dizzying array of sweets or greasy comfort foods.
The key is moderation. If you stick to healthy foods most of the time, it's OK to reward yourself with a less-than-healthy snack or treat once in a while. It's unrealistic to expect nutritional perfection with every bite. Don't beat yourself up if you have a setback; just try to refocus on your goal.
How to Eat Healthy in a College Dining Hall
Having a meal plan is often the most cost-effective and convenient option for college students, but most dining halls are full of both healthy and not-so-healthy options, and it can be challenging to stay on the right track. Fortunately, many dining halls are offering a wider assortment of choices than ever before, including options for vegans, vegetarians, and those with food allergies. (If you can't find any suitable options, try talking to dining hall staff about your request—their job is to help you.)
Here are a few tips to help you eat healthy in a college dining hall:
1. Have a plan.
Scope out the whole buffet area first and decide what you're going to get before you just start grabbing what looks good at every station. Once you're familiar with the general layout of the dining hall, you'll know which areas to stick to and which ones you should avoid. Many schools post their menus and nutritional information online, so you may be able to check out your options and have a targeted plan before you even arrive at the dining hall.
2. Start at the salad bar.
Starting with foods that are low in energy density (such as lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and carrots) can make you feel full sooner and keep you from going overboard with a calorie-heavy entree. Add fresh veggies to your greens and maybe throw on some nuts or seeds. Choose a light vinaigrette dressing rather than a heavy cream-based one. When choosing entrees or side dishes, opt for grilled, roasted, baked, or broiled foods over those that are deep fried or covered in cream or butter.
3. Be creative with combinations.
You can make your meal more appetizing by mixing and matching different foods. For instance, you could choose a protein selection and add some salsa from the nacho station or some vinaigrette dressing from the salad bar. Taking bits from different places and creating an interesting new meal can keep you from getting tired of the same old thing every day.
4. Limit yourself to one balanced go at the buffet.
A good general guideline is to have fruits and vegetables on half your plate, lean protein on a quarter of your plate, and whole grains on the other quarter. If you eat all of that and think you're still hungry, have a glass of water and wait about 20 minutes. It can take that long for your stomach to tell your brain it's full. If you're in a rush, grab some nuts or a piece of fruit to go so that you can snack when you're sure you need to.
5. Be mindful of social eating.
Hanging out in the dining hall is a great way to relax with friends and meet new people, but you may find yourself munching away without even realizing how much you're eating. Research has shown that people often eat the same amount as their dining partners, particularly in small groups.4 One person's unhealthy choices could influence what the others in the group decide to eat. Watch that your social life doesn't jeopardize your healthy eating plans.
How to Eat Healthy If You Live Off Campus
Having a full kitchen gives you the freedom to design your own menu, but it also means you have to buy your own groceries and prepare your own meals. You have the option of choosing healthier options than what is available in the dining hall, but you need to plan carefully. Many fresh foods go bad quickly, and if you live with roommates, you may have limited fridge space. There are definite pluses to living off campus, however: Many students tend to eat less and save leftovers so that they don't have to cook or shop as often.
Many of the healthy eating tips for college dining halls also apply when you cook for yourself. (For example, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, avoid fried foods, and be careful about social eating.) So be sure to review those. Here are some additional tips to help you eat healthy when you control the menu:
1. Make a plan.
Plan your meals in advance whenever you can. Knowing what you're going to eat each week makes it easier to come up with a grocery list and helps you avoid wasting food. Try to organize your list based on the layout of the grocery store so that you won't have to backtrack. A good rule of thumb is to stick to the outer perimeter of the store, where the healthiest foods are; stay away from the center aisles that contain less-healthy items. And avoid shopping when you're hungry—that can lead to impulse purchases you'll regret later.
2. Shop smart.
Try to shop once a week. If your schedule won't let you get to the store that often, consider buying frozen fruits and veggies; these are just as nutritious as fresh produce, and you don't have to worry about them going bad. They can be added to yogurt or made into a stir fry. Stock up on non-perishable items like oats, peanut butter, whole wheat pasta, and canned beans so that you have options for quick and easy meals. And be sure to watch for sales and buy in bulk when things become discounted.
3. Learn to cook.
The biggest advantage of not being tied to a college's meal plan is that you can control what goes into your meals. Keep a few of your favorite herbs and spices around to add flavor to your food. Make large batches so that you don't have to cook every day. Divide those batches into smaller containers so that they're already portioned and ready to go for lunches or dinners. If your freezer is large enough, you can freeze batches of meals and always have something ready for those times when you just can't get to the store.
Healthy Snacks to Have on Hand
You don't have to be limited to ramen in your dorm room. Here's a list of healthy snacks you can keep in your room or apartment to munch on when you need a quick refueling:
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole-grain crackers
- Rice cakes
- Apples, oranges, pears, or bananas
- Oatmeal and high-fiber cereal
- Wholewheat bread or tortillas with peanut butter
- Unbuttered popcorn
And if you have access to a fridge, you can also try:
- Low-sugar yogurt with berries
- Sliced carrots, celery, and cucumber with hummus
1 American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment II: Fall 2017 Reference Group Executive Summary, website last visited on August 13, 2018.
2 Journal of Aging Science, "Obesity Etiology: Examination of Fast-Food Eating Among College Students," website last visited on August 15, 2017.
3 Wisconsin Hope Lab, Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food & Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates, website last visited on August 15, 2017.
4 ScienceDirect, "Eating and social influence: Effects of multiple models and free-eating situations on intake," website last visited on January 23, 2020.