Dietitians, nutritionists and university administrators share easy-to-follow advice on eating healthy through college. From navigating the dining hall to limiting late night snacking, these 12 tips will help any student stick to a healthier diet.
“Snacks can either be helpful or harmful to one’s health—and for busy college kids on the go, smart snacking is a must,” said Rene Ficek, a registered dietitian who is also the Lead Nutrition Expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating (SSHE). “Snacks that include protein and fiber are ideal…to add a sense of fullness and keep energy levels up throughout the day. Keep in mind that when snacking, it is easy to go overboard on calories. Snacking in between meals should provide enough food to keep energy levels up, without breaking the calorie bank. Depending on one’s calorie needs, in between meal snacks should range from 100-300 calories.”
“Your mom was right, breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” said Ficek. “Breakfast suppresses midmorning hunger, yields fewer episodes of imbalanced, impulsive, or excessive eating later in the day, reduces overall fat intake and encourages improved health consciousness. Furthermore, starting your day without breakfast is like driving a car without gasoline. Brains need fuel to work. Research shows those who eat breakfast score better on tests and do better in school overall, so eat up.”
“We make poor nutrition decisions when hunger sets in,” said Ficek. “Walking through the grocery store aisles with a growling stomach is one surefire way to end up with more junk food in the cart, more junk food in the cupboard and more junk food in the belly. Eating healthy requires surrounding yourself with mostly healthy choices, making the day to day decisions easier.”
“Milk and water are truly the only beverages that should have a place in the American diet. Sugar sweetened beverages do not add any nutritional benefit, but do add a significant amount of sugar and calories to the diet,” said Ficek. “Additionally, these beverages typically replace calcium loaded milk as a beverage, making it more likely that one will suffer osteoporosis down the road. And don’t be fooled by all the marketing claims made by…juice on the market. Chances are you would be better off eating the food rather than its juice.”
“Hippocrates once said, ‘Bad digestion is the root of all evil.’ Now, a growing body of research suggests that the ancient Greek physician was seriously onto something: Maintaining a healthy balance of ‘good’ gut bacteria in the digestive tract is critical to overall health and well-being,” said Ficek. “Eat to beat disease by including a plethora of citrus fruits, fiber rich foods, leafy greens and yellow vegetables. And don’t forget to help the good bugs out by including some foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, bananas, garlic, asparagus, and onions on a daily basis.”
“In order to have a healthy relationship with food, hunger and satiety must be respected. Understanding physical signs of both hunger and satiety are necessary to keeping the body biologically fed without triggering a primal drive to overeat,” said Ficek. “Listen for the body signals that tell you that you are starting to get hungry and signs that you are comfortably full. Learning to focus on these physical signs can greatly improve impulsive and erratic eating habits.”
“Make a plan to focus on healthy eating most of the time, but not trying to be perfect,” said Marci Clow, a registered dietitian and Senior Nutritionist at Rainbow Light. “[The] college lifestyle will throw roadblocks and it’s nearly impossible for anybody to focus on sticking to a healthy eating plan all of the time.” Be realistic about your diet, don’t deprive yourself, but don’t go overboard either.
“Try to get a variety of foods, shooting for foods from at least three different food groups at each meal,” said Clow. “Try different combinations of whole grains, veggies, dairy, lean protein throughout the day and grab fruit for dessert. Also, practice portion control, as there are endless opportunities to overeat. Take smaller portions and listen to your body, only eating until you’re satisfied, not stuffed.”
“If you’re on a college meal plan you probably have endless food choices and unlimited portions to pick from either from a buffet or an array of food stations,” said Lanette Kovachi, a registered dietitian and the corporate dietitian for SUBWAY Restaurants. “Focus on choices that include veggies and low saturated fat proteins like chicken or turkey breast, fish, or legumes. Limit the deep-fried, calorie-laden fare and instead opt for items that have been baked, grilled or sautéed. Also, when it comes to that tempting dessert bar, you don’t have to deprive yourself of a sweet treat but try to stick to a smaller sensible portion…Bottom line, don’t approach meals as ‘all-you-can eat’ mentality but rather ‘take just what I need to eat’.”
“Studying late or going out with friends combined with all night food delivery options, 24-hour diners and vending machines makes for a lot of late night snacking (or maybe we should say late night bonus meals),” said Kovachi. “Unless you’ve missed dinner this late night snack is just going to pack on unnecessary calories and more than likely won’t be the most balanced choice (i.e. pizza, diner food, etc.). Try to skip late night snacking or instead snack on something lighter like fruit, lightly oiled popcorn, yogurt, a handful of trail mix or hummus and whole grain crackers.”
“Whether studying, listening to a lecture or sitting down for a meal, keep water on hand for your primary beverage,” said Kovachi. “Keeping hydrated is important to keep energy up, reducing [feelings of] hunger and helps you avoid filling up on sugary drinks that can add on a lot of unnecessary, empty calories.”
If you think eating at college begins and ends with an all-you-can-eat buffet, than you’d be surprised to learn about the options and resources available on most campuses. “Most college dining vendors now post caloric and nutritional information in dining locations [and online]. Some even offer nutritional workshops or work with other campus groups to provide clinics or seminars,” said Chester Goad, a university administrator, a former K12 principal and author. With a bit of research you’ll likely be surprised at what tools are available.