Most college students have little time or money to spend focusing on a healthy diet. In fact, poor eating habits in college are so commonplace that the term “freshman fifteen” has become part of our national lexicon. However, just because it’s difficult to maintain healthy eating habits while in school, it doesn’t mean students shouldn’t try. After all, research shows a connection between proper nutrition and emotional, physical, and cognitive health.
If you’ll be attending college for the first time this coming fall — or you’re a current student looking to make a change — consider the following ways to develop healthy eating habits.
Though it may be tempting to sleep in, you should always get up early enough to eat a balanced breakfast. Skipping breakfast comes with a surprising number of negative consequences, including reduced short-term memory, lower energy levels, and the inability to concentrate. However, by eating breakfast, you’ll not only find yourself more energized and motivated, you’ll also be able to better manage your hunger and food intake throughout the day.
Start your morning with protein (such as quinoa oatmeal or peanut butter chia bars), some fruit, and vegan yogurt. If you’re in the mood for cereal, avoid the sugary stuff and look to high fiber options instead. Do your best to consume no more than one or two handfuls of cereal. Be sure to grab an apple, orange, or banana to put in your bag before you leave the dining hall.
When it comes to lunch, nothing is quite as handy as the salad bar. Start with a hearty bowl of greens, varying the lettuce options from day to day, and load it up with other veggies as well. Add a protein, such as tofu, tempeh, or a handful of beans. Be creative! Experiment with flavors and textures by adding toppings such as seeds and nuts. When choosing your dressing, avoid the heavy, mayo-based options — opt for a light vinaigrette instead.
A well-rounded dinner will include a protein, a fat, and a carb. Truly satisfying protein options include tempeh, tofu, wild rice, or a bean salad. Carbs can include quinoa, or veggies such as broccoli, squash, green beans, corn, or potatoes.
Although they may look appetizing, it’s best to stay away from anything deep fried or completely drenched in heavy cream and butter. Look for foods that are roasted, baked, steamed, or broiled. You can always make adjustments to make entrees healthier, like skipping add-ons such as gravy and bread.
With so much going on during the day, you’re going to need some high-quality snacks to keep you going. These healthy snacks will help you stay alert and avoid overeating during meals. Here’s what you should keep on hand:
Shelf Stable Options
- Granola bars
- Whole-grain crackers
- Veggie chips
- Dried fruit
- Unbuttered popcorn
- Rice cakes
- Vegan yogurt
- Fresh fruits & veggies
Having a stash of snacks will save both money and calories by keeping you away from the vending machine. It’s also extremely helpful when you find yourself feeling a bit peckish during late night study sessions.
It’s perfectly acceptable to enjoy some junk food every now and then. By allowing yourself to cheat occasionally, you can better maintain your diet in the long run because you’re not denying yourself anything. So, if you’re having a day where you’re really craving pizza or cupcakes, let yourself indulge in moderation.
If You Don’t Have a Meal Plan
If you lack a college meal plan, you’ll need to exercise even more control over your eating habits by purchasing and preparing your food yourself. The best way to do this is to plan your meals each week and then make a grocery list that takes into account what you already have in your pantry. To optimize your food budget even further, plan your menu around what’s on sale at your local grocery store.
Other ways to save money include:
- Purchasing generic or store-brand foods and goods.
- Buying healthy non-perishable foods (such as oats, rice, pasta) in bulk.
- Buying frozen fruits and vegetables for use in soups, casseroles, and smoothies.
Spend a few hours each week making a big batch of a healthy, easy meal. Then, freeze individual portions to eat on those days when you don’t have the time or energy to cook!
Be Mindful Of Your Caffeine Intake
Did you know that caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world? It’s a staple of almost every American’s diet (usually in the form of coffee), and college students in particular are known for their massive caffeine intake. However, although caffeine use does come with several benefits, scientists and doctors recommend it be consumed in moderation.
But how much caffeine is okay?
Jennifer Brown, registered dietitian and faculty associate at Arizona State University’s School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, says an average of three cups of coffee per day (roughly 300 milligrams of caffeine) is an acceptable level for most people. However, it’s important to remember that caffeine comes from many sources — including soda, tea, and chocolate — so be sure to count them when tallying up your total milligrams for the day.
Alcohol and college — they go together like America and apple pie. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink now and again, but binge drinking should be avoided at all costs. Beyond the increased caloric intake, binge drinking can be incredibly dangerous. Binge drinkers are more likely to suffer from alcohol poisoning, accidental injury, and be involved in car crashes. Binge drinking is also associated with serious health issues, such as brain damage and a tendency toward alcoholism.
Drinking responsibly means knowing your limits (usually 2-5 drinks depending on alcohol content and body size) and having a plan to get home safely. Under no circumstances should you ever drink and drive.
Making healthy eating choices while in college comes with a whole host of benefits. You’ll be more motivated, better able to focus in class and retain new information, and ultimately make the most of your learning environment. What’s more, you’ll be less likely to get ill or cave under the stressors of college life. Finally — and perhaps most importantly — the healthy habits you form now will follow you for the rest of your life. If that’s not worth the effort, I don’t know what is!
Are you a college student? What do you eat on an average day?
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