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, healthy diets for college students do exist, 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.

What Foods Should I Incorporate into My Diet?

Unfortunately, there are no magic foods that prevent weight gain. At the end of the day, weight management depends on calories-in versus calories-out. For a healthy college diet, nutritionists recommend focusing on lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and plenty of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. Portion control also is important for managing your caloric intake.

7 Tips for a Healthier College Diet

Try following these diet 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. 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

  2. Snack often. It may seem counterintuitive, but nutritionists encourage snacking in small portions throughout the day to manage your appetite. They recommend eating every two to four hours to control hunger, avoid overeating at mealtime, and prevent weight gain.

  3. Keep healthy snacks on hand. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 pulling all-nighters. 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.

  6. Go easy on the caffeine. Late nights and early mornings can lead to caffeine overconsumption. 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.

  7. 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.

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