Healthy Eating For College Students

With the end of the school year upon us, some of our children may be anticipating the launch of college in the next few months. You might already know that the average college student doesn’t always make the healthiest choices, and we’ve all heard of (or perhaps experienced first-hand) the infamous Freshman 15.

While eating well isn’t often a top priority for students, it does more than just prevent excess weight.  A healthy diet can help college students cope with the stress of college life, perform better both in the classroom and in sports, and feel better all the way around. And the good news is – it’s not terribly complicated.

So, if you are a soon-to-be college student reading this, consider some (or all) of the following suggestions to help you successfully start your new path feeling your best. If you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, neighbor, mentor, or other valued elder of a soon-to-be college student, perhaps you could stash this list of practical tips in your student’s suitcase before he or she heads off into the wide-open world…

1) Eat a good breakfast, every day.

First and foremost, start the day on the right foot. Studies show that students perform better academically after a good breakfast. If you’re pinched for time (and you will be), grab a banana and a whole wheat bagel with peanut butter or cream cheese, or a container of yogurt mixed with Cheerios or another whole grain cereal and a glass of juice. Try to include foods from three food groups for breakfast.

2)  Don’t succumb to sugary coffee drinks. 

Coffee can make you or break you, and it’ll start to break you if you slurp 300–400 extra calories of sugar and fat along with it on a daily basis. If you drink it at all, stick with straight-up coffee. If you must latte, do so with skim or soy milk.

3)  Steer clear of sports drinks, energy drinks and soda.

If you’re an athlete who exercises for more than 60 minutes per day, and you sweat a lot, a sports drink is appropriate (G2 and Powerade Zero are good, lower calorie versions).

As for soda — drink it sparingly. Just one can of soda per day can put on 30 pounds in one year!

And energy drinks — forget about ‘em. The effects of caffeine from energy drinks can be significant, leading to digestive problems, anxiety, insomnia and elevated blood pressure. Consuming energy drinks mixed with alcohol can be extremely dangerous. Enough said.

4)  Avoid considering the dining hall as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Multiple servings and daily soft-serve ice cream are tempting, no doubt, but keep in mind the potential consequences of excessive eating on a consistent basis. Do your best to fill half your plate with fruits and non-starchy vegetables at mealtime, one-quarter grains and one-quarter protein. Your bones need the extra calcium at this age, so be certain to include a glass of skim, 1%, or 2% milk too.

5)  If you eat fast food, do so sparingly.

Be smart about this.  We all know that chicken nuggets and French fries don’t earn a gold star, but don’t be fooled by seemingly “healthy” fast food choices. Some burritos and rice bowls at popular Mexi-style fast food chains can carry over 1,000 calories per item. If you must eat fast food, avoid fried offerings, limit portion sizes, drink water instead of a sugar-sweetened drink, and round out the meal with a piece of fruit.

6)  Make your dorm room a mini health food store.

If you have a small fridge in your room, keep it stocked with fresh fruit and baby carrots, cheese sticks and yogurt, salsa and hummus. In your “pantry,” keep nuts and nut butter, unbuttered popcorn, whole grain crackers, baked tortilla chips and rice cakes. If a snack attack strikes, you’ll be prepared.

7)  Avoid late-night snack attacks.

If there is a doughnut truck on your college campus during the late-night hours, strongly consider avoiding it. Instead, go back to your “mini health food store” dorm room for a quick bite. You’ll feel much better in the morning.

8)  Carry a water bottle with you.

Sometimes we think we’re hungry when we’re actually really thirsty. You can avoid this by drinking water throughout the day. Plus, if you carry a water bottle with you, you won’t need to spend money on purchasing water or other beverages. The spare cash comes in handy when you’re a college student.

9)  Limit your alcohol intake.

Seven calories per gram + zero nutrition = Alcohol. One light beer, one small glass of wine, one ounce of liquor, all contain 100 calories. Multiply that by several drinks, and it adds up quickly. Most of us only need about 2,000 calories per day. There may also be health problems associated with drinking alcohol, especially when mixed with energy drinks –- did I mention that previously? (Yes, I did.)

10) Be a foodie!

Finally, take advantage of the opportunity to try foods you haven’t tried before. Seek culinary oddities. Tempt your taste buds with ethnic foods you’re not accustomed. Cook and share meals with new friends.

So there you have it. There’s more where these suggestions came from, but I wanted to keep it simple, because you already have enough to think about. If you need or want additional direction while you’re at school, visit the student health center. Most are staffed with Registered Dietitians/Nutritionists who can help you navigate the college food landscape.

And for more helpful information, check out MyPlate On Campus.

Anne Marie Kuchera, our Kids Plus Nutrition Consultant, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dietitian.