The Student’s Guide to Nutrition

one in four college students were shown to gain an average of ten pounds during their first semester Between full-service dining hall meals, the campus sundae bar, late-night food delivery, and cheap ramen, it’s easy to see how college students lose control of their diets. In one nutritional study of public university freshman, one in four college students were shown to gain an average of ten pounds during their first semester. Unsurprisingly, students that gained the most weight ate fewer fruits and vegetables, indulged in fattier foods and slept less than students that saw no change in their weight by winter break.

You risk more than weight gain when you fall face-first into a cheeseburger night after night; you also risk a lower GPA, susceptibility to illness, and increased fatigue when you make consistently poor food choices. Other side effects can include a higher risk of depression and anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, menstrual problems or sleep disturbances.

Fast food and other convenience foods live up to their names, but ultimately don’t provide you with the nutrition you need to perform well in school. Understanding the hows and whys of healthy eating can help you maximize your food choices in school and set you up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits.

Nutrition may be less confusing when it’s thought of in terms of its fundamental building blocks. Complicated labeling and diet fads aside, there are five food groups we should choose from every day, each serving a distinct purpose. Understanding what these food groups accomplish in our bodies can make the effort to eat better feel all the more logical.

Evolution of USDA Food Charts: 1992 vs. 2014

We’re all familiar with the original five food groups: grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, dairy and fats. Most of us were introduced to this idea of food groups sometime after 1992, the year U.S.D.A. launched its iconic food pyramid, a symbol of balanced eating that would be featured on the side of cereal boxes and milk cartons for the next 20 years.

Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Health revised the food pyramid to a new model called My Plate. Unlike the pyramid, My Plate only shows suggested proportions for the five basic food groups, rather than the number of servings recommended. It isn’t cluttered with images of the food types themselves and is meant to be less confusing than the original pyramid.

1992 USDA Food Pyramid

1992 USDA Food Pyramid

USDA’s My Plate

USDA's My Plate

Of course, the idea behind My Plate wasn’t just to create a more straightforward guide to healthy eating. One key revision is to illustrate to consumers that together, vegetables and fruits should make up roughly half of our diet and that we should consume less dairy and grains than originally thought.

Recommended Daily Intake for Adults 19-30:

According to 1992 USDA advisories, the average adult was supposed to consume around 2,000 calories per day, including 6-11 servings of grains like rice, pasta, bread and cereal and 3-5 servings of vegetables. In light of new research into American nutrition and lifestyle patterns, the USDA now recommends that not only should we all be eating more vegetables and less bread, but that many of us don’t actually need 2,000 calories every day.

Calorie and portion size requirements actually vary widely between people of different genders, ages and activity levels. An NFL linebacker may need 3,500 calories on game day, but a 19-year old college student slumped over a term paper all day may only require 1,800.

Consider that within the age group of 19-30 year olds, the recommended daily intake between men and women differs by nearly 20 percent

recommended portions for men and women


grains portions

*recommended serving sizes are based on the average 19-30 year old American

Recommended Daily Intake (Ages 19-30)

  • Women: 3-5 Servings
  • Men: 4-8 Servings

Single serving of grain:

  • .5 cup brown rice
  • .5 cup oatmeal
  • 3 cups popcorn
  • 1 cup wheat cereal flakes
  • 1 slice wheat bread
  • 5 wheat crackers

Adding whole grains to our diets reduces the risk of cardiac problems and provides the fiber we need for digestive health. Whole grains are particularly useful in weight loss, because they are far more filling than their refined grain counterparts. Their B vitamins boost the immune system and the formation of energy-producing red blood cells. Lastly, grains are a major source of iron for U.S. consumers, which is necessary to prevent anemia.

There are two types of grains available to consumers: whole and refined. In whole-grain products, the entire kernel of the grain itself is used. In refined grains, vitamin-packed parts called bran and germ are removed and the grains are further ground into finely textured bits. When grain is milled like this, the dietary fiber that is natural to whole grains is lost. Some millers add B vitamins and other nutrients back in, which allows them to label products as ‘enriched’ grains. It’s important to note that enriched does not mean the same thing as whole-grain, so check labels carefully.

Whole grains, like wheat, rye or barley, used alone or together, are smarter choices, as are brown rice and whole-grain pastas. You’ll feel fuller faster and you’ll be eating healthier.

The recommended daily intake for grains is actually much lower than most people eat. College-aged women should eat 3 to 5 small servings a day and males the same age should eat 4 to 8; at least half of these choices should be whole-grain.


protein servings

*recommended serving sizes are based on the average 19-30 year old American

Recommended Daily Intake (Ages 19-30)

  • Women: 5.5 Servings
  • Men: 6.5 Servings

Servings of Protein:

  • 1 small steak = 3-4 Servings
  • 1 chicken breast = 3 Servings
  • 3 eggs = 3 Servings
  • 1 oz of nuts (12 almonds, 24 pistachios) = 2 Servings
  • 1 cup split pea or lentil soup = 2 servings

Protein is a basic building block for the human body; we need it to maintain healthy muscle, bone, blood, skin and cartilage. In its most basic form, it converts calories into energy. Protein boosts the immune system, transports nutrients in and out of cells, removes carbon dioxide to the lungs, and forms the enzymes needed to create the complex chemical reactions that occur in our bodies.

Because it takes more calories to digest protein than other foods, it’s useful for weight control; it also provides a greater feeling of fullness than many other foods.The trick with choosing the proper type of protein rests in its source and preparation; many contain saturated fats and high cholesterol or are prepared with trans fats and other harmful byproducts.

Choose lean protein whenever you can; this is one of the best steps you can take to protect your cardiac health. This may be as simple as using lean ground beef for taco night, or substituting beef with ground turkey. Round steaks, roasts, top loin, sirloin and chuck shoulder are the leanest of red meats, and skinless boneless turkey and chicken are the best poultry options. Opt for sliced turkey or roast beef for sandwiches instead of bologna or salami, both of which are high in fat and low in nutrients. Don’t be afraid to experiment with cooking, but try to limit sauces and spreads loaded with fat and preservatives.

Depending on your body type, you should be eating about 45 to 55 grams of protein every day; this is roughly equal to six ounces. Most Americans eat far more protein than they need, so the recommended intake may at first seem small. A day’s protein might look like an 8-oz. glass of milk, a yogurt cup, and a chicken breast the size of your palm. Other protein sources that may appeal to college students are plant-based proteins. Nuts, sunflower seeds and cheeses make great snacks and require minimal storage space.


dairy portions

*recommended serving sizes are based on the average 19-30 year old American

Recommended Daily Intake (Ages 19-30)

  • Women: 3 Servings
  • Men: 3 Servings

Single serving of dairy:

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 2 cups cottage cheese
  • 2 slices processed cheese
  • 1.5 cups ice cream

A dairy product is anything that contains milk; that being said, it’s important to only count dairy that maintains its calcium content. Items like cream cheese and butter begin with milk, but do not belong in this food group. Hard or soft natural cheeses, processed American cheese, yogurt, ice cream, pudding, and milk in any form all qualify as dairy products.

The primary benefit of dairy is calcium, which allows us to maintain bone and tooth health. It also contains blood pressure-lowering potassium and Vitamin D, which promote healthy bones. Like foods in the protein group, dairy products must be chosen carefully because they often contain hidden saturated fats. Low-fat or fat-free dairy choices are solid additions to your daily diet.

Typical college students should have about 3 cups of dairy per day. This could be as simple as chugging 3 cups of milk. For students who prefer some variety, a yogurt cup, 2 slices of cheddar, and a 1.5-cup serving of ice cream meets the daily allotment. Soy products that are enhanced with calcium, like a fruit smoothie, are also good sources of dairy.

Fruits and Vegetables

fruit and veggie portions

*recommended serving sizes are based on the average 19-30 year old American

Recommended Daily Intake (Ages 19-30)

  • Women: 4.5 servings
  • Men: 5 servings

Single serving of vegetables

  • 3 5″ crowns of broccoli
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 2 cups cooked spinach
  • 1 large tomato
  • 1 cup cooked beans

Single serving of fruit:

  • 1 apple
  • 1 banana
  • 16 grapes
  • 1 orange
  • .5 grapefruit
  • 4 oz. applesauce

Fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients like potassium, fiber, vitamin C and folate. They have no cholesterol and are low in calories.

Potassium-rich diets lower blood pressure, which reduces your long-term risk of developing cardiovascular problems. The dietary fiber found in fruits and vegetables also delivers a great nutritional boost as it lowers cholesterol and also contributes to long-term cardiac health; in the short term, it helps maintain proper bowel function. And vitamin C helps you fight off infection and keeps your gums healthy. Folate helps your body form red blood cells and is essential for the health of a developing fetus.

Vegetables and fruit are low in calories and fat and contain no artery-clogging cholesterol. They contain large amounts of dietary fiber and other nutrients like potassium and Vitamins A and C. In addition to its benefit to the digestive tract, fiber-rich foods leave us with a feeling of fullness and may inspire us to eat fewer calories. A diet rich in fruits and veggies results in lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of cardiovascular illness later in life.

Fruit and Vegetables Color Spectrum:

Some nutritionists further break down this food group into subparts loosely based on a vegetable or fruit’s color: red, orange green, blue or white. To really maximize your daily diet, try to eat something from each of these subgroups daily. A good rule of thumb is that any intensely colored plant is one that packs a hefty dose of vitamins.


College students should try to eat 2.5 to 3 cups of veggies and about 2 cups of fruit per day, throughout the day. Don’t let the amount intimidate you; this is equal to 12 baby carrot sticks, a decently sized salad and two small pieces of fruit. You can also add veggies and fruits to salads or sandwiches. It’s important to remember that produce has more bulk and fiber in their raw form; cooked veggies can be just as healthy to eat, but you’ll need to eat more of them to meet your daily requirement.

College students – even the most health-conscious – are constantly tempted with quick pick-me-ups and dietary choices that may seem like a good idea in the short term. The catch is, many typical snack foods and beverages not only contain empty calories, but also harmful ingredients. Next time you find yourself reaching for such a snack, acknowledge the health consequences and then reconsider.


No one can dispute the pleasure of the morning’s first cup of coffee. There is no doubt caffeine can increase your alertness; neurologically speaking, it increases the amount of neurons that fire in your brain. This stimulant effect can improve memory, mood, energy level and reaction time. However, there’s a limit to caffeine’s healthy effects. Although you might dread the thought of getting out of bed without your cup of joe, it’s important to remember caffeine is a drug, specifically a stimulant.

And because caffeine is a stimulant, it carries a risk of addiction. When you become too dependent on say, a daily energy drink with extreme amounts of caffeine, reducing your intake can cause splitting headaches. When you drink caffeine too late in the day, it can also kick-start a vicious cycle of insomnia. On top of that, too much caffeine can aggravate problems with anxiety or heart rate. By itself, caffeine increases blood sugar levels, and that’s not even factoring in the extra sugar loaded into some caffeinated drinks. Lastly, stomach pains are not an unusual side effect of caffeine; too much can wreak havoc if you have acid reflux or heartburn. With all that in mind, caffeine is fine in moderation, but what is moderate with caffeine? There’s no obvious answer, but studies suggest that a safe limit for most adults is four cups of coffee a day.


Two types of dietary fat should concern you: naturally occurring fats and trans fats. Naturally occurring fats are found in meats and dairy, and in small quantities they are not bad for you. Trans fats, however, are bad news, and they are unfortunately found in most junk food. Also called partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats in food impart a pleasant texture in the mouth, and they also significantly extend the shelf life of a product. The preservatives in oils made with trans fat also allow food-service establishments to re-use them many times.

In addition to deep-fried foods, trans fats are found in all kinds of snacks: doughnuts, biscuits, frozen pizza, cookies, crackers and baked goods. College students who regularly snack on junk food and french fries risk arterial cardiac disease and stroke from elevated blood pressure. An increased risk of diabetes is also associated with trans fat use.

Carbohydrates and Sugars

Diets that restrict carbs and sugar are popular, though not all carbs are bad for you, nor are sugars. Naturally occurring carbohydrates, like those found in fruits and vegetables, are full of dietary fiber; fruits and vegetables also contain glucose, a healthy naturally-occurring sugar. When you eat produce, a natural insulin response is triggered in the body: carbs and glucose break down into sugar molecules that increase blood sugar. In response, the pancreas secretes insulin that tells the sugar molecules to convert to energy; any excess sugar is then stored as fat.

When you eat chips, noodles or baked goods made with refined flour or with fructose (refined sugar), the pancreas is unable to keep up with the sugar rush. Because the food lacks dietary fiber, there is no trigger to release enough insulin to manage the excess blood sugar. As a result, you experience cravings for more sugary foods made with refined flour while your body struggles to process what you’ve already eaten; this is why you may crave sweets only hours after gorging on pasta. Additionally, the excess sugar molecules ultimately become fat, meaning these nutritionally devoid treats cause weight gain. More importantly, eating bad carbs over time can lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes.

Processed Meats

Beef jerky, lunchmeat from the deli counter, a package of bologna that keeps for ages, delicious bacon: all of these may seem like inexpensive options that appeal to college students. While it’s understood college students live on shoestring budgets, it is important to understand what you eat no matter how inexpensive it may be. These processed meats are no exception; most of them are loaded with a preservative called sodium nitrate. This chemical causes changes in your arteries that lead to heart disease, and may also affect your ability to process sugars. Nitrates have also been linked to multiple cancers in children.


Watching your sodium intake means more than avoiding the salt shaker at mealtimes. We Americans love our processed food, but it turns out most of it is packed with far more sodium than is healthy. According to the American Heart Association, nearly three quarters of the salt we eat comes from processed foods. For college students, this includes inexpensive boxed macaroni and cheese and other dorm treats like ramen noodles, canned soups, and salty snacks like chips and crackers. The Centers for Disease Control identified the six saltiest foods we eat, which any college student will recognize:

  • Breads and rolls
  • Cold cuts and deli meats
  • Pizza
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Soup
  • Sandwiches

Each of these can contain up to twice the recommended allowance for a full day’s worth of sodium. Students who regularly binge on high-sodium foods risk high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Though the college experience is radically different from even ten years ago, many students still must subsist on meal plans offered by the school. Residential students who have no kitchen facilities have no choice, and even commuter students may find their class schedules are too packed to allow time to eat off campus. Fortunately, most colleges and universities recognize their students have diverse dietary needs and now offer a range of traditional, vegetarian and vegan offerings. This year, more than 200 universities observed Meatless Mondays in their dining halls.

Whether your school is a small local college or an enormous state university, your meal plan offering most likely begins with a college staple: the all-you-can-eat dining hall. College students, especially freshmen in charge of making their own food choices for the first time, may find the dining hall to be overwhelming. Learning to navigate dining hall options can not only keep the freshman fifteen away, but can also help you eat so that you are the getting the healthiest sources of energy.

Tips and Tricks for Eating Well in a Dining Hall

  1. Plan ahead. Browse your dining hall menu online before you eat. This will keep you from succumbing to hunger and eating the first thing you see, and can help you avoid temptations. Some schools also have tools that calculate nutritional content and calorie counts for you. Planning ahead may be particularly helpful when it comes to breakfast; if you decide what you’ll order the night before, you won’t have to make a decision when you’re half-asleep.
  2. Remember your food groups. You don’t need to keep a food journal, but do keep basic nutrition in mind. Tune out the siren song of the french fry bar, and choose fruits and vegetables as the bulk of your diet, aiming for as much color as you can find. Make it a point to put a protein source and something fresh on your plate at every meal.
  3. Experiment. Most cafeterias strive to offer interesting entrees and side dishes to their students, even if they rotate the menus every few weeks. Before you say “Ew!” to something that sounds unappetizing, consider this: you’ve already paid for it and you might like it. You have nothing to lose from trying a couple of bites of something new on the edge of your plate, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
  4. Expand your definition of salad. In many American households, salad is a small side dish sometime served prior to a meal. Change your thinking. A bed of greens can function like a slice of bread, serving as the basis for whatever concoctions you can dream up. Consider building a salad with protein as your main ingredient, whether it be a piece of grilled salmon, a chicken breast that was intended for a sandwich, or protein-packed quinoa or tofu. From there, add veggies and fruits for color and flavor, then top with nuts or seeds for extra protein and texture.
  5. Redefine dessert. Dessert doesn’t always have to mean frozen yogurt with five kinds of cookie crumbled on top. Fruit, with its natural sugars, boosts your energy and satisfies a sweet tooth during or after a long day of classes. Of course, you can top your dining hall soft-serve with fruit, but consider trying some greek yogurt with dried fruit, or apples and peanut butter, every now and then.
  6. Drink more water. Soda machines remain rampant in college dining halls, but most everything they offer is nutritionally empty. Its excess sugar and sodium, not to mention chemicals and preservatives, wreak havoc on your teeth, your waist and your energy levels. Instead, choose water whenever possible; carry a bottle in your backpack for refills between classes. Staying well-hydrated leads to better skin, more energy and better overall health.
  7. Never leave empty-handed. A good rule of thumb is to never leave the dining hall without taking something with you, regardless of how full you might feel. There is likely to be a fruit basket or display near the registers or exit; always grab a piece of fruit and stow it in your backpack. Other healthy grabs include a granola or power bar, an individually wrapped bran muffin or a bag of trail mix. The trick is to keep something in your backpack you can eat fast. That way, when hunger strikes and you’re pressed for time, you have something nutritious to eat and can avoid the vending machines.
Dorm room living is the quintessential college experience; most college students will live at least one year on campus. Typically, students find themselves sharing their space with a relative stranger. This usually includes sharing a compact refrigerator, microwave and, if you’re lucky, a couple of shelves to hold food. Because it is unlikely you and your new roommate like the same food or will split the shopping list, it’s best to carve out your half of the available storage and plan accordingly.

As we discussed earlier, many healthy snacks and meal substitutes can be stored at room temperature, including fruits, some vegetables, and snacks. While you can’t expect to make healthy meals full-time in your dorm, it’s possible to keep food on hand that is either easy to eat or easy to prepare. A basic shopping list for the dorm might look like this:

  • Bagged salad greens
  • Fruit of choice
  • Single-serve greek yogurt
  • Milk
  • Whole-grain cereal
  • Diced celery, carrots, onions or zucchini (fresh or bagged and pre-cut)
  • Oatmeal
  • Honey
  • Dried fruit
  • Single-serve minute brown rice
  • Salt, pepper, garlic powder
  • Granola bars
  • Trail mix
  • Popcorn

A little creativity can go a long way with a microwave. Consider:

  • Scrambled eggs are a quick, easy source of protein-loaded sustenance. Punch up your microwave game by adding in grated cheese or fresh chopped veggies. You can also easily poach or hard-boil eggs in the microwave.
  • Ramen noodles are a college staple, but the seasonings pre-packaged with them tend to be high in sodium and preservatives. For a healthier version, ditch the packet and prepare the noodles as usual, adding in grated cheese or bits of fresh veggies.
  • Top boil-in-the-bag brown rice with microwaved veggies for a stir fry; season with a low sodium soy sauce.
  • Bake white or sweet potatoes in the microwave. Top sweet potatoes with brown sugar and butter and white potatoes with cheese, plain yogurt and chopped onion.

For the adventurous college student, more complicated recipes can be managed in the microwave.

Black Bean and Corn Soft Tacos

.5 cup sour cream
1 can (4-ounce) hot green chiles
1 can (15-ounce) black beans
1 can (15-ounce) corn kernels
1 tablespoon chili powder
8 (8-inch) flour tortillas
1.5 cups shredded lettuce
1 cup Cheddar cheese, grated

  1. Combine the sour cream and green chiles in a small bowl and set aside.
  2. Drain the beans and place in a microwaveable bowl.
  3. Add in the corn (with its liquid) and heat, stirring occasionally.
  4. Drain the liquid and stir in the chili powder.
  5. Place 2 flour tortillas on a plate and heat for 30 seconds.
  6. Spoon black bean mixture onto the centers and top with lettuce, cheese, and sour cream sauce as desired.

Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal (*vegan)

.5 cup whole grain oatmeal
1 cup water
.25 cup unsweetened almond milk
.5 cup pure pumpkin puree
1 packet sweetener (honey for non-vegans)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 tbsp walnuts (optional)

  1. Microwave water and oatmeal for 2 minutes.
  2. Stir in almond milk to give it a creamy texture.
  3. Mix in pumpkin puree, sweetener, and stir.
  4. Top with cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and walnuts.

Chicken Salad Wraps

1 (10 ounce) can chunk chicken, drained and flaked
2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fresh salsa
salt and pepper to taste
3 (10 inch) flour tortillas
6 lettuce leaves

  1. In a small bowl mix the chicken, onion, mayonnaise, salsa, salt and pepper.
  2. Line each tortilla with two lettuce leaves, then divide chicken salad mixture evenly among each tortilla and roll up, or ‘wrap’.
Most college students who are lucky enough to have access to a kitchen still operate on a tight budget, in terms of money and time. Even the fanciest kitchens in the newer residences on today’s campuses can lack the extra equipment that makes cooking easy; things like mixers, toasters, blenders or electric skillets. With this in mind, it is still possible to keep food on hand that you can quickly prepare into a healthy meal.

Planning meals in advance can mean enormous savings in time and money. You can use more expensive or esoteric ingredients more than once, and plan to use all of the fresh produce you buy before it spoils. Consider your schedule as you plan, and select a mix of very simple and more complex recipes; divvy these out as time permits throughout the week. Some cooks prepare larger dishes and plan to eat the leftovers at another time; others do all of the cooking during a free time period, such as on the weekend, and reheat food as necessary.

Whichever cooking style suits you best, always strategize your shopping and make a list after you’ve chosen your recipes. As you shop, stick to that list and avoid impulse purchases. Organize your shopping list by meal. For example:

  • Breakfast: Cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, fruit, whole-wheat bagels
  • Lunch: Sandwich ingredients, whole-grain bread, fruit. Take other cooking into account and plan to pack lunches with leftovers repurposed into salads and sandwiches.
  • Entrees: Fresh or frozen veggies, boxed rice, pasta side dishes and protein sources. Individually bag protein (chicken breasts, fish filets or ground beef servings), then freeze. Form ground beef into patties and freeze.
  • Snack foods: Popcorn, chips and salsa, hardboiled eggs, baby carrots and ranch dressing, brownies from a mix

Other strategies for shopping on a budget include shopping the grocery store around the edges. Essentials like fresh produce, dairy and meats are always against the walls, and interior aisles are filled with processed food. For the more expensive items you want to keep on hand, like spices and salad dressings, purchase one during each shopping trip until you have a variety to choose from. In addition to your planned meals, keep salad greens and cheeses on hand; most leftover meats or fish easily adapt to a salad with some crumbled cheese and fresh vegetables.