With unfettered access to buffet-style dining halls, campus sundae bars, late-night food delivery, and cheap ramen, it’s no surprise that so many students gain weight when they go to college. A nutritional study of public university freshman found that one in four students gained 10 pounds or more in their first year on campus. The study monitored each student’s consumption habits and, predictably, the students who gained the most weight ate fewer fruits and vegetables, indulged in fattier foods, and slept less than students who did not gain weight.
A steady diet of pizza and cheeseburgers can lead to more than just a few extra pounds: poor eating is also associated with lower grades, susceptibility to illness, and increased fatigue. Other side effects include a higher risk of depression, anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, menstrual problems, and sleep disturbances.
Ultimately, fast food and unhealthy snacks simply don’t provide you with the nutrition you need to perform well in school. Developing a balanced and nutritional diet at a young age can both enhance your academic performance and prepare you for a lifetime of healthy eating.
The Basics of Nutrition
Nutrition may be less confusing when reduced to its fundamental building blocks. Foods can be broken into five distinct food groups, each serving a distinct purpose. Understanding how these food groups affect your body can help you determine what, and how much, you should eat.
Evolution of USDA Food Charts: 1992 vs. 2014
Most college students are familiar with the basic food groups: grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and fats. Most students learned this framework early in childhood, thanks in part to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) iconic food pyramid. Created in 1992, the pyramid became a symbol of balanced eating, and was ubiquitous in cafeterias and elementary school curriculums for more than 20 years.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Health scrapped the food pyramid and introduced a new image, 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. The updated chart isn’t cluttered with images of the food types themselves and My Plate is more transparent than the original pyramid.
But My Plate wasn’t just built with aesthetics in mind. One of the key revisions illustrates to consumers that together, vegetables and fruits should make up roughly half of our diet and that we should eat less dairy and grains than the food pyramid suggested.
Recommended Daily Intake (Ages 19-30)
In 1992, the USDA recommended that the average adult consume approximately 2,000 calories per day. This included 6-11 servings of grains like rice, pasta, bread, and cereal, along with 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 should eat 3,500 calories on game day, but a college sophomore slumped over a term paper might only need half of that. Even in less dramatic comparisons, the difference in how much people should eat is still surprisingly wide: among 19-30 year-olds, for example, the recommended daily intake between men and women differs by nearly 20%.
*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
.5 cup brown rice = 1 serving
.5 cup oatmeal = 1 serving
3 cups popcorn = 1 serving
1 cup wheat cereal flakes = 1 serving
1 slice wheat bread = 1 serving
5 wheat crackers = 1 serving
Adding whole grains to our diets reduces the risk of cardiac problems and provides the fiber we need for proper digestive health. Whole grains are particularly useful in weight loss, because they are far more filling than refined grains. Their B vitamins boost the immune system and help form energy-producing red blood cells. Finally, grains are a major source of iron, which helps 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, it loses its natural dietary fiber. Some millers add B vitamins and other nutrients back in, which allows them to label products as ‘enriched’ grains. Whole grains, like wheat, rye, or barley, used alone or together, are smart and healthy choices, as are brown rice and whole-grain pastas. You’ll feel fuller faster and you’ll be eating healthier than if you consume refined or enriched grains.
The recommended daily intake for grains is actually much lower than most people eat. College-aged women should eat 3-5 small servings per day and men the same age should eat approximately 4-8. At least half of these servings should be whole-grain.
Women: 5.5 Servings
Men: 6.5 Servings
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, protein 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.
The body needs more calories to digest protein than other foods, and consequently, protein is useful for weight control. Protein also provides a greater feeling of fullness than many other foods do. The trick for choosing the proper type of protein rests in its source and preparation. It’s important to find healthy sources of protein, and unfortunately, many high-protein foods are laden with saturated fats and high cholesterol, or are prepared with trans fats and other harmful byproducts.
To protect your cardiac health, choose lean protein whenever possible. 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, while skinless boneless turkey and chicken are the top 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. 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, roughly six ounces worth. Most Americans eat far more protein than they need, so this recommended intake may initially 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. Plant-based proteins may also be appealing. Nuts, sunflower seeds, and cheeses make great snacks and require minimal storage space.
Women: 3 Servings
Men: 3 Servings
1 cup milk = 1 serving
1 cup yogurt = 1 serving
2 cups cottage cheese = 1 serving
2 slices processed cheese = 1 serving
1.5 cups ice cream = 1 serving
While anything that contains milk is a dairy product, 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 bolsters our bone and tooth health. Dairy 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 three cups of dairy per day. This could be as simple as drinking three cups of milk. For students who prefer some variety, a yogurt cup, two slices of cheddar, and a 1.5-cup serving of ice cream will also help you meet the daily allotment. Soy products that are enhanced with calcium, like a fruit smoothie, are also healthy sources of dairy.
- Fruits & Veggies
Women: 4.5 servings
Men: 5 servings
3 5″ crowns of broccoli = 1 serving
2 medium carrots = 1 serving
2 cups cooked spinach = 1 serving
1 large tomato = 1 serving
1 cup cooked beans = 1 serving
1 apple = 1 serving
1 banana = 1 serving
16 grapes = 1 serving
1 orange = 1 serving
.5 grapefruit = 1 serving
4 oz. applesauce = 1 serving
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 susceptibility to cardiovascular problems. The dietary fiber found in fruits and vegetables also delivers a great nutritional boost. Eating fiber can help you lower your cholesterol, maintain proper bowel function, and lead to long-term cardiac health. Additionally, vitamin C helps you fight off infections and keeps your gums healthy, while 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. Along with their benefit to the digestive tract, fiber-rich foods leave us with a feeling of fullness and may encourage us to eat fewer calories. Eating plenty of fruits and veggies can lower your blood pressure and lead to reduced risk of cardiovascular illness later in life.
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 enhance your diet, try to eat something from each of these subgroups daily. Generally, any intensely colored plant is one that packs a hefty dose of vitamins.
College students should try to eat two-and-a-half to three cups of veggies and about two 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 contains more bulk and fiber in its raw form; cooked veggies can be just as healthy to eat, but you’ll need to eat more of them to meet your daily target.
How Unhealthy Foods Affect Us
Even health-conscious college students will be occasionally tempted by quick pick-me-ups and comfort food. While an occasional snack won’t harm you, it’s important to remember that many snack foods and beverages not only contain empty calories, but also harmful ingredients.
For many students, the pleasure of the morning’s first cup of coffee is an early highlight to the day. Moreover, coffee can serve a valuable academic function, as caffeine increases the amount of neurons that fire in your brain. This stimulant effect can improve memory, mood, energy level, and reaction time. However, there is 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 that caffeine is a stimulant.
Like any stimulant, caffeine 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. Drinking caffeine too late in the day 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 without accounting for the extra sugar loaded into some caffeinated drinks. You can also develop stomach pains after consuming caffeine, and large quantities can wreak havoc if you have acid reflux or heartburn. Caffeine is fine in moderation, but first you’ll have to determine what qualifies as “moderation.” Studies suggest that a safe limit for most adults is four cups of coffee a day — less than what many students regularly drink.
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 unhealthy, and are found in most junk food. Also called 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 allows food-service establishments to re-use them several 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. Those 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 heavy trans fat consumption.
- Carbohydrates and Sugars
Diets that restrict carbs and sugar are popular, though carbs and sugars aren’t always bad for you. 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, you trigger a natural insulin response in your body, as 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 fructose, the pancreas is unable to handle the sugar rush. Because the food lacks dietary fiber, there is no trigger to release enough insulin to manage the excess blood sugar. Consequently, you’ll start craving 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. The excess sugar molecules become fat, which in turn facilitates weight gain. Over time, eating too many bad carbs can also lead to the development of type 2 diabetes.
- Processed Meats
Beef jerky, lunchmeat from the deli counter, a package of bologna, delicious bacon: all of these may seem like appealing and inexpensive options. But just because these meats can be shoehorned into a food group doesn’t mean that they’re healthy. Each are loaded with a preservative called sodium nitrate, a chemical that causes changes in your arteries that lead to heart disease, which may also harm 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 lunch. Americans love processed food, but most of it is packed with sodium. 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 common dorm food like ramen noodles, canned soups, and salty snacks like chips and crackers. The Centers for Disease Control identified the six saltiest foods we eat, and all of them will be recognizable to college students living on a shoestring budget:breads and rolls, cold cuts and deli meats, pizza, chicken nuggets, soup, and sandwiches.
Each of these contains up to twice the recommended allowance for a full day’s worth of sodium. Students who regularly binge on high-sodium foods risk raising their blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease or a stroke down the line.
Mastering the Dining Hall
Most underclassmen subsist on meal plans offered through the school. Residential students who have no kitchen facilities have no choice, and even commuter students may find their class schedules are conducive to regularly eating on campus. Fortunately, schools have started offering healthier choices than they did in previous decades. In 2014, more than 200 universities observed Meatless Mondays in their dining halls. Today, most colleges and universities recognize that their students have diverse dietary needs and offer a range of traditional, vegetarian, and vegan offerings.
Whether your school is a small liberal arts college or a large state university, your meal plan offering is likely facilitated through a traditional 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 overwhelming. Learning to navigate through all of the available food options can not only help you avoid the Freshman 15, but can also prepare you to eat in a healthy manner.
Tips and Tricks for Eating Well in a Dining Hall
- Plan ahead.
Browse your dining hall menu online before you eat. This should prevent you from succumbing to hunger and eating the first thing you see. Some schools also have tools that calculate nutritional content and calorie information for you. Planning ahead may be particularly helpful when it comes to breakfast; decide what to order before bed, and you won’t have to make a decision while you’re groggy.
- 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 eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, 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.
Most cafeterias strive to offer interesting entrees and side dishes to their students, and many dining halls regularly rotate their menu. Take advantage of the opportunity to try something a little different than your normal fare.
- Expand your definition of salad.
In many American households, salad is a small side dish. Change your thinking. Consider building a salad with protein as your main ingredient, whether it be a piece of grilled salmon, a chicken breast, 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.
- 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 or apples and peanut butter every now and then.
- Drink more water.
You’ll find soda machines sprinkled around campus, but everything they offer is nutritionally empty. Soft drinks contain more sugar and sodium than you need, not to mention chemicals and preservatives, and they wreak havoc on your teeth, waist, and energy levels. Instead, drink water whenever possible, and carry a bottle in your backpack for refills between classes. Staying hydrated leads to better skin, more energy, and better overall health.
- Plan ahead to avoid the vending machine.
Plan ahead to avoid the vending machine. College students eat a lot and get hungry at a moment’s notice. With that in mind, you’ll want to make sure that your snacks are nutritious. Take an apple from the dining hall, or put a box of granola bars in your backpack; if you’re carrying something healthy, you’ll be less tempted to impulsively buy a candy bar.
Dorm Room Cooking
Typically, new college students find themselves sharing space with a relative stranger. This arrangement usually means you’ll be sharing a compact refrigerator, a microwave and, if you’re lucky, a couple of shelves to hold food. You may not like the same food as your roommate, so it’s best to carve out your half of the space and plan accordingly.
While you probably can’t make healthy meals in your dorm every day, you can still keep plenty of nutritious food on hand. You can store a variety of healthy food at room temperature, including fruits, some vegetables, and snacks. A basic shopping list for the dorm might look like this:
|Fruits and Veggies||Everything Else|
|Bagged salad greens||Single-serve greek yogurt|
|Fruit of choice||Milk|
|Diced celery, carrots, onions or zucchini (fresh or bagged and pre-cut)||Whole-grain cereal|
|Dried fruit||Single-serve minute brown rice|
|Tomatoes and avocados||Popcorn|
A little creativity can go a long way with a microwave. Consider:
- Scrambled eggs
Scrambled eggs are a quick, easy source of protein-loaded sustenance. Be sure to add grated cheese or fresh chopped veggies. You can also easily poach or hard-boil eggs in the microwave.
- Ramen noodles
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.
- Brown rice
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.
Culinarily adventurous students can make plenty of other complicated meals in the microwave as well. If you want to eat healthy without trudging across campus, be sure to give these recipes a try.
- 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
- Combine the sour cream and green chiles in a small bowl and set aside.
- Drain the beans and place in a microwaveable bowl.
- Add in the corn (with its liquid) and heat, stirring occasionally.
- Drain the liquid and stir in the chili powder.
- Place 2 flour tortillas on a plate and heat for 30 seconds.
- Spoon black bean mixture onto the centers and top with lettuce, cheese, and sour cream sauce as desired.
- Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal
.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)
- Microwave water and oatmeal for 2 minutes.
- Stir in almond milk to give it a creamy texture.
- Mix in pumpkin puree, sweetener, and stir.
- 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
- In a small bowl mix the chicken, onion, mayonnaise, salsa, salt and pepper.
- Line each tortilla with two lettuce leaves, then divide chicken salad mixture evenly among each tortilla and roll up, or ‘wrap’.
Eating Well on a Budget
Most college students who are lucky enough to have access to a kitchen still operate on a tight budget. Even the fanciest kitchens in new residences lack the extra equipment that makes cooking easy, things like mixers, toasters, blenders, or electric skillets. That said, you can still keep some food on hand that you can quickly prepare into a healthy meal.
Planning meals in advance can help you save 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, if you like to cook, more complex recipes for when you have time. 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.
- 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 around the edges of the grocery store. 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 can be made into a salad with some crumbled cheese and fresh vegetables.