College can wreak havoc on a student’s body. Between all-you-can-eat dining hall buffets, unhealthy but oh-so-tempting food options on campus, irregular schedules and sleep patterns, increased alcohol consumption, decreased physical activity, stress, and limited finances, it can be all too easy for college students to inadvertently develop unhealthy eating habits and pack on the pounds.
A healthy diet and lifestyle play a big role in mental and physical well-being, including increasing energy, improving mood and cognitive function, and achieving and maintaining a healthy weight during college.
Here are 6 tips to eating healthy and staying fit at college:
1. Don’t skip meals.
College kids are often on the go and consumed by hectic schedules, which can lead to skipping or missing a meal. Even if you’re just chained to a desk in the library, the body needs fuel (food) to function. For many college students, it’s not that they’re eating unhealthy foods, but rather they’re letting long periods of time go by between eating occasions.
Skipping meals does not promote weight loss; in fact, it slows your metabolism, leads to poor food choices later, and can lead to overeating and weight gain. Eating every 3 to 5 hours helps keep your brain functioning optimally and your mood positive.
Oatmeal is great to keep in your dorm room for an easy, quick, filling breakfast (or overnight oats if you have a fridge and are less than halfway functioning in the mornings). Try using the unflavored variety to cut the sugar and spice it up with cinnamon, berries or other fruit, and add a small handful of unsalted nuts or a tablespoon of nut butter for some protein. Oatmeal can also be a good on-the-go meal for between classes if you know you won’t have time to hit the dining hall, as you can often ask in a coffee shop for hot water and a to-go cup to make and eat your oatmeal on the go.
2. Snack smart.
Students often snack their way through the day and night, but it’s often foods laden with calories, fat, and sodium. When snacking is done right, it can curb appetite and help maintain a healthy weight.
Keep healthy, portable, easy to grab food items in your dorm room or apartment and toss a few in your bag when you head to class or the library. Include a mix of protein and fiber to keep you fueled and full.
Good snack options include (but are not limited to):
- carrots and humus
- fresh fruit and nut butter
- low-fat string cheese and whole grain crackers or sliced apple
- Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese with berries or a small handful of unsalted nuts.
Popcorn is a great whole grain, high fiber, low-calorie nosh and healthier, satisfying alternative to chips (as long as it’s not the butter or kettle corn version!). Buy the plain or lightly salted variety and spice it up on your own if you want to (I like to do smoked paprika, chili powder, cinnamon, or a little parmesan cheese depending on my mood). When you’re starving or in a rush (or stuck in the library!), having healthy snacks on stashed in your backpack can help you resist the temptation of the junk food snacks that are often readily available on campus.
3. Get moving.
Time is a valuable commodity for college students and exercise is often the first thing to fall off the daily to do list. Exercise helps you sleep better at night, improves mood, decreases stress, improves focus for better studying, and makes it easier to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.
Aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity most days of the week. Consider joining an intramural sport or taking a fitness or dance class as a course (you’ll get exercise in and earn credit for it!). Simple things like catching up with a friend over a walk around campus, walking or biking to and from class, parking your car further away from campus, and picking a seat on a higher floor in the library and taking the stairs add up and burn calories, too.
4. Drink water.
Substitute water for energy drinks and soft drinks. Water is needed by all cells and organs in the body in order to function properly, but college students often reach for energy drinks and other flavored beverages throughout the day and night instead. These drinks are packed with calories and sugar and cause blood sugar to spike and then crash, disrupting energy levels, increasing hunger, and causing weight gain all too easily.
Stick to coffee or tea if you’re in need of caffeine, and be mindful of what you’re putting in it (i.e. don’t make your coffee into a coffee flavored energy drink by pouring in tons of sweetener!). Buy a reusable water bottle and carry it with you everywhere (bonus: environmentally friendly and money-saving). Don’t like water? Try putting fresh mint, orange, berries, or other fruits in your water for flavor.
College students are notorious for not getting enough sleep, but less than six hours a night can throw off hormones that control cravings, appetite, and metabolism. Too few hours of shut-eye can cause your body to crave more of the high-calorie junk foods that it can break down quickly for energy. On nights that six hours is just not possible, try a nap. No time to go home and nap? Throw a scarf or extra piece of clothing in your bag (and maybe some earplugs) to turn your desk in the library into a quiet, dark area for napping.
6. About that alcohol…
Alcohol is often a big part of social events in college. If your college student is 21 or older, suggesting he or she avoid or limit alcohol will likely elicit a major eye roll. But it’s good to keep in mind that drinking is a calorie-intensive way to spend your time.
Alcohol itself packs a lot of calories and zero beneficial nutrients, and can cause increased fat storage in the body and impair hormone regulation, which can in turn throw off sleep patterns and make it difficult to lose or maintain weight or build muscle. If you consider the high-sugar mixers often used to make cocktails and mixed drinks, and that it’s very difficult to estimate a true serving size of alcohol in a solo cup (5 oz. of wine, 12 oz. of beer, 1.5 oz liquor), you can see how the calories can add up – fast.
Alcohol also lowers willpower and inhibitions, and even the diet-conscious student will often break down and devour 3 pieces of pizza at 2 a.m. after a night of drinking. Students who choose to imbibe should keep their drinks simple to help limit calorie content.
Avoid using pre-made mixers, energy drinks, and regular soda as mixers to help cut sugar and calories. Try sparkling water and lime juice (or flavored sparkling water) instead and if you need to flavor with juice, try to use only a splash. Consider making your wine into a spritzer by adding club soda and lime (cuts calories and helps keep you hydrated!), and consider switching from regular to light beer, which has about 50 fewer calories per serving.
Also, if late night eating is simply unavoidable for you some nights – plan for it. Eat healthy during the day and plan ahead for a healthier late night option. Ideas for easy, more nutritious late night munchies include:
- whole grain tortilla chips and salsa
- low-fat cheese melted on a whole-wheat pita or tortilla
- whole-wheat pita and humus
Feeling really ambitious? Make your own pizza ahead of time (whole-wheat pita + tomato sauce + shredded low-fat cheese + maybe some spinach for good measure) and just pop it in the microwave when you get home. How to not let alcohol consumption derail your health progress: eat healthfully on the day of drinking but do not skip meals, keep your drinks simple, drink in moderation if you choose to drink, and plan ahead for those late night munchies.
College is a balance of working and playing hard and learning what your mind and body need to be happy. With a little extra diet and lifestyle planning, you can help improve your mental and physical well-being and avoid that dreaded “freshman 15” (or sophomore, or junior or senior!) college weight gain.
Photo credit: Trinity College
Alex Hauspurg, MS, RD is an experienced dietitian. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org