Guide to Eating Healthy in College

Guide to Eating Healthy in College

The dreaded Freshman 15. Most people have heard of it, but not everyone has to be a victim.

For those who aren’t aware, the Freshman 15 refers to the tendency of college students to gain 15 pounds during their freshman year. Some are overachievers, gaining an impressive 20 even 30 pounds.

Why are college students susceptible to weight gain? It usually comes down to the food they eat. Busy schedules, dorm life, and being responsible for their own food choices (usually for the first time) combine to make gaining weight all too easy.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Even without a kitchen to prepare your own meals, you do have options to make eating healthier possible. It comes down to being prepared, making different choices, and educating yourself on what is considered healthy eating.

Healthy Eating: The Basics

The United States Department of Agriculture provides its Dietary Guidelines on how to eat healthy.

Breaking it down so that it’s easy to understand, smart food choices include:

  • Real food: this means less processed food choices and more whole, real food.
  • Plant life: this means between five and seven servings of fruits and vegetables every day, preferably at least one serving at every meal, plus during snack times.
  • Whole grains: this means cracked, whole wheat bread instead of white; brown rice instead of white; and other whole grain choices like quinoa.
  • Lean proteins: this means lean cuts of chicken, pork, and beef; eggs; and meat substitutes like lentils, beans, and tofu.
  • Dairy: this means two or three servings each day of dairy products, including yogurt, cheese, and milk.
  • Healthy fats: this means cooking with olive oil and replacing trans fats with foods like avocado (a great spread in place of mayonnaise).
  • Understanding portion sizes: this means knowing that a serving of protein is the size of your palm, not your plate, and a serving of mashed potatoes or ice cream is about a half-cup, not a bowl.

For more information on serving sizes and food groups, check out Choose My Plate, another great USDA resource.

Solutions to Healthy Eating Challenges

Your first impulse may be to go on a diet. Though an understandable reaction, it isn’t always the smart choice.

Diets may help you lose weight quickly, but the moment you stop them the weight comes back. That’s because you go right back to the eating habits that caused you to gain weight in the first place.

The goal is more than losing weight; your goal should include improved overall health and nutrition. Instead of focusing on the “bad” foods, focus on the good ones. Look at what you can add to your diet, as well as what you take away from it.

This is much easier when you look for healthier choices that you actually like. Kale may be the “super” food dominating headlines, but if you think it tastes terrible yet force yourself to eat it anyway, it won’t be long before you turn to your not so healthy comfort foods. .

Also, try to eat when you begin to feel hungry instead of waiting until you’re starving, as you will make much smarter food choices. You also tend to overeat if you wait until you become famished before eating.

Eating before reaching the famished stage is easier if you keep a healthy snack or two with you. Veggies, pretzels, nuts, fruit, and protein or granola bars make good choices (so long as that bar meets the following criteria: 5 grams of fiber, 10 grams of protein, without added sugar).

Stock up your dorm room (or pantry, if you aren’t in the dorms) with healthy options. If you can, invest in a mini-fridge, microwave, and/or a George Foreman grill. Also, plastic baggies and containers are the best friend of a college student trying to eat healthy on the go.

Healthy Snacks and Quick Meals

Fill your fridge with fruits and vegetables. They don’t even have to be fresh. Frozen varieties keep for a lot longer and you just thaw what you need and toss the rest back in the freezer. Try adding those frozen veggies to foods like rice and eggs. Fruits with a long shelf life, around two weeks, include apples and citrus fruits.

Eggs make a great, quick protein. If you like hardboiled eggs, put them in a pot of cold water, bring it to a boil, and then remove from heat and let sit covered for 15 minutes. If you like a softer yolk, decrease the time you let the egg sit in hot water. Boiled eggs will last one week in the refrigerator, and provide for a quick and easy snack or meal that is already prepared.

Protein in every meal/snack helps you feel fuller longer, so add nuts, a boiled egg, cheese sticks, or some cubed chicken to your snack bag.

Mild dehydration is often mistaken for hunger. Stay hydrated with a good, leak-proof, reusable water bottle and carry it with you.

If you do eat prepackaged foods, look for healthier alternatives. Organic mac and cheese tastes great and is a lot healthier than your favorite from childhood.

Keep a jar of natural peanut or almond butter for quick protein. You can add it to apples, celery, pretzels, or just eat a spoonful.

Healthy Eating on a Meal Plan

If you live in the dorms, you likely have a meal plan. Even though unhealthy options abound, you should have a decent selection of food options that promote healthier eating.

Start with how you fill your plate. Most people tend to hit the “main course” first, then carb choices, before finally adding their vegetables. Mix up the order by filling half your plate with vegetables first, then a lean protein, and finally a carb choice.

Your vegetable choice might be a nice, colorful salad filled with your favorite vegetables, with an oil and vinegar-based dressing instead of one of the creamy options. It could also be steamed vegetables (or both). Add a chicken breast with a side of pasta or rice and you have a healthy plateful.

If you finish eating before your friends, don’t hang around. This typically leads to continued eating after you’re already full. Head back to your room to study or relax, or take a walk.

Most schools set out a free fruit basket. Technically, it isn’t free; you pay for it along with the rest of your meal plan. Take advantage of this basket and put some in your backpack so you always have fruit in your dorm or on the go.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask the staff for healthier options, or let them know if you have particular dietary needs. This doesn’t mean asking someone to cook your favorite meal. It does mean you can ask for just the chicken instead of the chicken sandwich.

Eating on the Go

Healthy eating on the go requires planning. You know what to pack (fruits, vegetables, and protein), but when you’re running late for class, you may dash out the door without those snacks.

Pre-portioning snacks on Sunday means that when you’re rushing out the door on Monday, you just grab what you want for the day. Fill a baggie with baby carrots, or a plastic container with a sandwich, cheese sticks, boiled egg, or anything else you want.

Pre-portioning out snacks like pretzels, dried fruit, and nuts means you have exactly what you need on hand, and you can’t gorge yourself. Plus, the baggies keep your snacks fresh.

If you have a kitchen, or access to one, cook a week’s worth of meals at once and then store them in your plastic containers. Casseroles, soups, and chilies work well for bulk cooking. This is also the time to prepare your boiled eggs for the week.

Understanding Your Schedule

Work within your class schedule to plan your meals and snacks, instead of trying to force yourself to follow the standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner routine, such as breakfast when waking, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6:00p.m.

Create the schedule that works for you. Not everyone operates with the same needs, so pay attention to your body. Once you come up with a schedule, stick to it.

With your snacks on-hand and pre-packaged lunches, this is much simpler. However, if you feel genuinely hungry outside of your scheduled meal times, eat something. Your body knows what it needs.

Forgiving Yourself when You Slip

Don’t expect perfection from yourself in anything. The goal is making healthier choices overall. If you follow that idea most of the time, your health won’t suffer too much after those days when you seek out comfort food.

This happens often during finals and midterms, but can happen anytime. There will be super busy days when convenience takes precedence over eating healthy. That’s okay. Just jump back on the healthy food wagon afterward and don’t let it become a habit.

You also need to allow yourself the occasional cheat day (just don’t make it a cheat week). Treat yourself to a particularly decadent dessert or your favorite breakfast pastry. Join your study group at the pizza place or load your plate with pasta instead of salad. Again, as long as you get back to healthy eating the next day, you’ll be okay. Also, pay attention to how you feel when you don’t eat healthy, as it may help keep you from eating poorly very often.

College is all about learning. This includes educating yourself on the best way to care for your body and what it takes to lead a healthier lifestyle. With a bit of planning, and an understanding of what constitutes a healthy diet, you should be able to maintain your weight and feel good.

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