healthy diet for college students

Navigating life as a college student presents its own set of challenges. You have classes, papers, exams, and projects — not to mention a social life to enjoy.

With an already-packed schedule, you might be tempted to not prioritize your health. Fortunately, college students have healthier options available and avoiding the notorious “freshman 15” may be easier than you think. Smart choices throughout the day can add up to long-term, sustainable health habits.

How Can You Prevent College Weight Gain?

It is possible for students to use the campus dining services to their advantage. This is a time for learning, and the dining hall can be a classroom as well. To help you make responsible, informed decisions about your diet:

  • Increase your knowledge of nutrition and food composition.
  • Learn the basics of cooking and food preparation.
  • Develop greater insight into where your food comes from.
  • Gain an awareness of how specific foods affect you as an individual.

Students who eat foods that fuel their bodies are more likely to have a successful and enjoyable experience.

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Tips for a Healthier College Diet

Try following these tips to reap the benefits of a healthier lifestyle while at college:

1. Start your day with a healthy breakfast.

As it turns out, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. A daily balanced breakfast offers many health benefits, including improved concentration, enhanced memory, a longer attention span, a heightened mood, and better cognitive performance.

Students who eat breakfast are consistently more focused in the classroom. They achieve higher grades and standardized test scores. And they exhibit more efficient problem-solving skills, better hand-eye coordination, stronger memory recall, greater fact comprehension, and more stable energy levels.

Avoid the temptation to rush out the door on an empty stomach by planning ahead. Stock up on healthy ingredients that make quick meals, and prioritize protein to keep you full. Three examples of healthy breakfasts are:

  • Eggs, whole wheat toast, and fruit
  • Protein shakes
  • Greek yogurt with granola and berries

Breakfast eaters also usually weigh less than breakfast skippers. They

are more likely to have a body mass index (BMI) within a healthy range.

Contrary to popular belief, skipping breakfast is more likely to cause weight gain than weight loss. Routine breakfast eaters consume fewer daily calories and fat grams than non-breakfast eaters. They are also less inclined to overeat at night.

2. Snack (healthy foods) often.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but nutritionists encourage snacking in small portions between meals to manage your appetite. They recommend eating every two to four hours to control hunger, avoid overeating at mealtime, and prevent weight gain. But, not all snacks are created equal. That’s why it’s important to keep healthy, energy-boosting snacks in your dorm, backpack, and other easily accessible locations.

If you can keep them fresh, fruits and vegetables are always great options. But string cheese, yogurt, and heart-healthy nuts also are convenient and help keep you full and energized.

3. Establish an eating routine.

Have two or three solid meals per day. Save your dining hall trips for when you can sit down and take the time to eat a full meal.

Refrain from going to the dining hall for a light snack. Fueling your body on a predictable schedule will set you up for success and keep your body and brain running at full power. Try to time your meals for when you are slightly hungry, rather than waiting until you are starving. Becoming too hungry will likely cause you to overeat. Resist the desire to skip meals to sleep in, study, or get to class early.

4. Make it balanced meals.

Be sure to include at least three to four major food groups at each meal. A combination of high-quality carbohydrates, lean protein, and heart-healthy fats is necessary to ensure the optimal functioning of the body and the brain.

High-quality carbohydrate sources include whole grains, fruits, starchy vegetables, and some low-fat and fat-free dairy products. These nutrient-rich carbohydrates supply long-lasting energy. They also provide fiber, B vitamins, zinc, iron, antioxidants, and numerous phytochemicals.

Protein, the most filling nutrient, helps regulate appetite and control hunger. In addition, it maintains blood sugar levels, preserves lean muscle mass, repairs body tissues, and creates enzymes and hormones. Protein-rich foods include skinless poultry, lean beef and pork, beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters, and certain dairy products.

Heart-healthy fats are found in avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butters, olives, fatty fish, and some oils. Heart-healthy fats act as chemical messengers. They aid in nerve transmission, help the absorption of certain vitamins, and protect the vital organs.

5. Eat the rainbow.

Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables can make your meals more nutritious, colorful, and flavorful. Plus, they increase the overall food volume of a meal, yet add relatively few calories.

If you have access to a salad bar, skip the high-calorie salad additions (croutons, cheese, bacon bits). Opt for small amounts of beans, dried fruit, nuts, or seeds instead. Vinaigrette salad dressings are a heart-healthy alternative to creamy salad dressings.

To improve portion control of salad dressing, put it in a small container on the side rather than mixing it into the salad. Dip your fork into the dressing prior to spearing each bite of salad. This trick enables you to get the taste of the salad dressing with each bite, while using very little dressing.

6. Increase whole grains.

Choose more whole-grain foods, whether it be whole-grain bread at the sandwich station or 100% whole-grain cereal in the morning. Many campus dining facilities offer brown and wild rice, quinoa, oatmeal, whole-grain pasta, whole-grain rolls or buns, whole-grain bagels and English muffins, whole-grain pita bread, whole-grain tortillas, and even whole-grain pizza crust.

Whole grains are high in dietary fiber, which promotes digestion, sustains energy levels, reduces cholesterol, stabilizes blood glucose, and alleviates constipation. Dietary fiber also makes you feel full. Adequate intake is linked to lower body weight and decreased obesity. Frequent eating of whole grains may help prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, diverticulosis/diverticulitis, and certain cancers.

You can find out if a food is a whole grain by looking at its ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. There is more of the first ingredient than anything else in the product. If the first ingredient contains the word “whole,” it can be interpreted to mean that the primary ingredient is a whole grain. Foods labeled as multi-grain, wheat, or made with whole grains are not necessarily high in fiber.

7. Exercise portion control.

Students often want to get the most for their money and maximize their meal plan allowance. Instead, set goals to take smaller portions and use a smaller plate. You can always go back for additional food if you are still hungry.

Rather than rushing through your meal, savor the taste of your food. Slow down the pace at which you eat, and chew more thoroughly. Try to take smaller bites and put your fork down between each bite. You will inevitably feel more satisfied with less food. Before you convince yourself that you need another round of food, wait 10 to 15 minutes. Drink a glass of water. Remember that the food will still be there tomorrow

8. Re-think what you drink.

Avoid drinking extra calories in regular soda, fruit juices, high-fat or flavored milk varieties, fruit punch, lemonade, milkshakes, sweetened tea, or specialty coffee beverages. Ask for skim, 1%, or soy milk in your coffee or tea instead of cream. This tactic helps keep the calories from adding up. It also counteracts unstable blood sugar levels, which are not helpful for studying.

9. Stay active.

Walk to class, join a gym, or find a group of friends to hold you accountable for staying active. Exercise not only will help you avoid the freshman 15, but also is proven to lower stress levels, boost mood, and improve sleep.

10. Get plenty of sleep.

Most doctors recommend a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night. Studies show we’re more likely to reach for unhealthy snacks when sleep-deprived and less likely to muster the energy for exercise, according to the National Institutes of Health. Try not to make a habit of staying up all night. Instead, plan ahead and carve out plenty of time to study for upcoming exams. Establish a solid bedtime routine, and make sleep a priority for optimal health.

11. Go easy on the caffeine.

Late nights and early mornings can lead to caffeine over-consumption. But too much caffeine can cause insomnia and other problems that wreak havoc on your diet and health. Try to limit yourself to one or two cups of coffee per day, and remember that caffeine comes in forms other than coffee — like teas, sodas, and chocolate.

12. Practice moderation.

Eating well and avoiding weight gain doesn’t mean you have to give up all of your favorite treats. Diets for college students still can include the occasional slice of pizza — just be mindful of your portions and practice moderation when eating sugary snacks, fried foods, and other indulgences. Allowing yourself to enjoy a small treat every now and then may help ward off binge-eating and other unhealthy eating behaviors.

13. Minimize multitasking.

Don’t use the dining hall to read, study, or work on group projects. Eating while distracted inevitably reduces your awareness of what and how much you’re eating. Distracted eating patterns also inhibit your ability to detect your body’s hunger and fullness cues. They also prevent you from fully enjoying your food. Socialize during your meal, but avoid staying in the dining hall for longer than necessary. Lingering for an extended period of time can be a temptation to keep eating.

14. Listen to your body.

Pay attention to how various foods and drinks make you feel. Experiment with what, how, and when you are eating. Be mindful of how different foods affect your mood, energy, sleep, digestion, and mental focus. It is important to keep track of how food impacts you, both negatively and positively, and to adjust accordingly.

Are you interested in developing healthier habits? To learn more about nutrition, check out UPMC’s Nutrition Services.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.