The Student’s Guide to Nutrition

Understanding the different food groups and planning your meals in advance can help set you up for a lifetime of healthy eating habits.

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by Staff Writers

Published on October 27, 2020 · Updated on March 24, 2022

Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

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The Student’s Guide to Nutrition


With unfettered access to buffet-style dining halls and late-night food delivery, it's no surprise that so many students gain weight when they go to college.

A nutritional study of first-year students found that 1 in 4 students gained 10 pounds or more in their first year on campus. Those who gained the most weight ate fewer fruits and vegetables, indulged in fattier foods, and slept less than students who did not gain weight.

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, 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.

Nutrition Basics: What Happened to the Food Pyramid?

Most college students are familiar with the basic food groups: grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, and dairy.

You likely learned this framework as a child, 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 curricula for more than 20 years.

In 2014, however, the U.S. Department of Health scrapped the food pyramid and introduced a new illustration called MyPlate. MyPlate shows suggested proportions for the five basic food groups rather than the number of recommended servings.

According to MyPlate, vegetables and fruits should make up roughly half of your diet. People are also advised to eat less dairy and fewer grains than the food pyramid originally suggested.

An illustration of MyPlate, which shows a plate roughly filled with half fruits and vegetables, a quarter of protein and dairy, and a quarter of grains.

What Is the Recommended Daily Caloric Intake?

In 1992, the USDA recommended that the average adult consume around 2,000 calories per day. In light of new research, however, the USDA now says many of us don't actually need 2,000 calories each day. The department also recommends that we eat more vegetables and less grain.

Calorie and portion size requirements can vary widely among people of different sexes, ages, and physical activity levels. An NFL linebacker, for example, should eat around 3,500 calories on game day — but a college sophomore slumped over a term paper might only need half of that.

Even among 19-to-30-year-olds, the recommended daily intake between men and women differs by nearly 20%, which you can see in the illustration below.

An illustration indicating the different portions of food men and women should eat using the MyPlate format.

What's the Recommended Daily Intake by Food Group?

Understanding how each food group affects your body can help you determine what — and how much — you should eat. Learn more about each food group below.

Grains

  • Daily Grain Recommendation for Women: 6-8 Ounces
  • Daily Grain Recommendation for Men: 8-10 Ounces
  • There are two types of grains available to consumers: whole and refined. 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 more filling than refined grains. You'll feel fuller faster and you'll be eating healthier than if you consumed refined or enriched grains.

    The recommended daily intake for grains is actually much lower than what most people eat. College-aged women should eat 3-6 small servings per day, while college-aged men should eat 4-8 servings. At least half of these servings should be whole grain.


    Protein

  • Daily Protein Recommendation for Women: 5-6.5 Ounces
  • Daily Protein Recommendation for Men: 6.5-7 Ounces
  • 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.

    It's important to find healthy sources of protein. 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 or plant protein whenever possible.

    Depending on your body type, you should be eating about 45-55 grams of protein every day, or roughly six ounces worth. Most Americans eat far more protein than they need, so this recommended intake may initially seem small.


    Dairy

  • Daily Dairy Recommendation for Women: 3 Cups
  • Daily Dairy Recommendation for Men: 3 Cups
  • The primary benefit of dairy is calcium, which bolsters our bone and tooth health. 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. Natural cheeses, yogurt, and milk in any form all qualify as dairy products.

    Low-fat or fat-free dairy choices are solid additions to your daily diet. In general, college students should have about 3 cups of dairy per day. This could be as simple as drinking a few glasses of milk.


    Fruits and Veggies

  • Daily Fruit and Veggie Recommendation for Women: 4-5 Cups
  • Daily Fruit and Veggie Recommendation for Men: 5-5.5 Cups
  • Fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients like potassium, fiber, vitamin C, and folate. They also have no cholesterol and are low in calories.

    Eating fiber can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, maintain proper bowel function, and lead to long-term cardiac health. Fiber-rich foods also leave us with a feeling of fullness and may encourage us to eat fewer calories.

    College students should try to eat 2.5-3 cups of veggies and about 2 cups of fruit per 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.


    Fruit and Veggie Subgroups

    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. 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 Does Unhealthy Food Affect Your Body?

    Even health-conscious college students will sometimes be 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 contain empty calories and harmful ingredients.

    Caffeine

    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 can improve memory, mood, energy level, and reaction time.

    However, there is a limit to caffeine's healthy effects. Drinking caffeine too late in the day can also kickstart a vicious cycle of insomnia. On top of that, too much caffeine can aggravate problems with anxiety or heart rate.

    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 4 cups of coffee a day — less than what many students regularly drink.

    Fats

    Two types of dietary fat should concern you: naturally occurring fats and trans fats. Naturally occurring fats are found in meats and dairy. In small quantities, these fats aren't bad for you. Trans fats, however, are unhealthy, and can be found in most junk food.

    Also called hydrogenated oils, trans fats significantly extend the shelf life of a product. In addition to deep-fried foods, trans fats are found in all kinds of snacks, such as donuts, frozen pizzas, cookies, and baked goods.

    Those who regularly snack on junk food risk arterial cardiac disease and 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.

    When you eat sugary or high-carb foods made with refined flour or fructose, the pancreas is unable to release enough insulin to manage the excess sugar. The excess sugar molecules then become fat, which in turn leads to weight gain.

    Almost all processed foods and fast foods contain high levels of refind sugar, also referred to as processed sugar. It's best to avoid or limit this type of sugar, as it's associated with a variety of health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and many types of cancer.

    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 make them healthy.

    Each of these options is loaded with sugar and a preservative called sodium nitrate, a chemical that causes changes in your arteries, which can lead to heart disease and harm your ability to process sugars. Nitrates have also been linked to multiple cancers in children.

    Sodium

    Watching your sodium intake means more than avoiding the salt shaker. Americans love processed food, but most of it is packed with sodium. For college students, this includes dorm food like macaroni and cheese, ramen noodles, and salty snacks like chips and crackers.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified the top 10 sources of sodium we eat, and all of them will be recognizable to college students living on a shoestring budget: breads, pizza, sandwiches, cured meats, soups, burritos and tacos, savory snacks, chicken, cheese, and eggs.

    Students who regularly binge on high-sodium foods risk raising their blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease.

    Mastering the Dining Hall

    Most first- and second-year students subsist on meal plans offered through the school. Residential students with 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. Today, most colleges and universities recognize that their students have diverse dietary needs and offer an array 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 first-year students in charge of making their own food choices for the first time, may find the dining hall overwhelming. But by remembering your food groups and planning ahead, you can navigate available food options to help you eat healthily.

    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 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 packaged 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

    How to Eat Healthy 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 can make cooking easy.

    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.

    Consider your schedule as you plan. Select a mix of 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, while others do all the cooking at once, such as on the weekend, and reheat food as necessary.

    Whichever cooking style suits you better, 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. Try organizing your shopping list by meal:


    DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should consult with their physician to obtain advice with respect to any medical condition or treatment.


    Feature Image: RgStudio / E+ / Getty Images

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