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Your Guide to Eating Healthy In College

A bowl of vegetables.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

When in college, keeping yourself healthy is one important detail of your newfound independence. It’s important to have good eating habits in college so that they can follow you for the rest of your life. 

Why is it important?

Healthy eating contributes to one of college’s most notorious problems: sleep! With all of the responsibilities a college student carries, it’s no surprise that college students often do not get enough sleep.

Lack of quality sleep contributes to many health issues both short and long term. Poor sleep can lead to forgetfulness, lack of focus, a decrease in mental health, and a decrease in overall academic performance.

However, by maintaining healthy eating habits, you can make sure you are also improving your chances of a good night’s sleep. High levels of sugar and saturated fat during the day have been linked to a lighter and less restful sleep at night, while healthier foods, foods that are higher in fiber, protein, and healthy fats, will contribute to better quality of sleep.

A healthy diet improves your mental health as well. Your brain requires a steady energy source since it uses different energy than the body does. In the same way you can’t run laps or shoot hoops when you’re hungry, you also can’t add up that math equation or write that paper.

Poor diet meals include refined cereals, high processed meats, and too many sweets, as these are linked to a higher incidence of depression and other mood disorders. Too much of these foods also affect the way you handle stress.

On the other hand, healthy meals for your brain should include fruits and vegetables or other plant-based foods. These contribute to lower stress levels and decrease anxious feelings. 

Eat the rainbow

Fruits and vegetables may be the hardest to incorporate in a college student diet. This may be because of its tendency to expire quickly.

However, with the right amount of planning and with organization of what you intake, you can be assured that you will incorporate your fruits and vegetables daily. Let’s talk the Rainbow of Healthy Foods.

Did you know that it’s easy to identify healthy foods based off the colors of the rainbow? Eat the rainbow is a phrase that many nutritionists use to help remind people to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their everyday diet.

Let’s start with white. White foods improve a number of factors, including your immune system, health of your colon, cholesterol levels, and health of your heart. Bananas, brown pears, cauliflower, dates, mushrooms, onions, and potatoes are all wonderful examples of white foods. 

Let’s move on to yellow. Yellow foods lower cholesterol, assure healthy joints and tissues, support eyesight, prevent cancer, and improve the health of your heart. Also known as orange foods, these foods are crucial in your diet. Corn, squash, pineapple, cantaloupe, baby carrots, mango slices, oranges and even lightly salted pumpkin seeds are all examples of orange and yellow foods you should incorporate. 

Red fruits and vegetables do more for you than you would think. Not only do they lead to a healthy heart but they also decrease blood pressure, help cell renewal, prevent cancer, and help protect your skin. Some red foods you should incorporate into your diet include strawberries, cherries, apple slices, watermelon slices, bell peppers, tomatoes, and sweet potato slices. 

Green foods help improve digestion, support your eyesight, and strengthen your bones and immune system.  Some examples of green foods include kiwi, celery, avocados, cucumbers, broccoli, spinach, and snap peas. 

Last but not least, purple foods help your memory, improve your urinary system, and improve the health of your blood vessels. Also known as blue foods, these foods offer a different approach to improving your health. Some examples include blueberries, blackberries, dried plums, raisins and eggplants. 

So, how do you make sure you incorporate your rainbow foods in your college diet? If you are living in a dorm, try buying organic natural dried fruits, such as dried apricots, dates and raisins. They’re a good in-between-class snack. If you visit a dining hall, try going to a dining hall that offers the best variety of foods.

While you cannot ensure whether the food is organic or not, it’s better to incorporate the colors into your diet than not at all. Vary your meal options so as to not exhaust these foods.

Try incorporating some spinach  into a stir fry meal, or try mixing blueberries into some yogurt for breakfast. You don’t have to have them completely isolated on your plate in order for you to enjoy its benefits. 

PROtein!

Protein builds, maintains, and replaces the tissues in your body and is the basic building block of the human body. It is needed to maintain healthy muscle, strengthen bones, help your bloodstream, and increase the growth of skin and cartilage.

In its most basic form, protein is the nutrient that converts calories into energy. 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.

Choose lean protein whenever possible. This may be as simple as using lean ground beef for taco night with friends. Roasts, top loin, and sirloin are the leanest of red meats, while skinless, boneless turkey and chicken are the top poultry options.

Opt for some sliced turkey or roast beef for some lunch sandwiches instead of bologna or salami, which are high in fat and low in nutrients. Also, try to limit sauces and spreads loaded with fat and preservatives.

A day’s protein in college can be as easy as an 8-oz. glass of milk, a yogurt cup, or a bag of nuts. Plant-based proteins may also be appealing. Nuts, sunflower seeds, and cheeses make great snacks and are also dorm friendly! 

College carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an essential part of your health. Carbohydrates are all about giving you energy, as your body uses it to make glucose, which is your body’s main energy source. Glucose is a type of sugar that can be used right away for energy or stored away to be used later.

Carbohydrate quality is important; some types of carbohydrate-rich foods are better than others. The healthiest sources of carbohydrates—unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans—promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a host of important phytonutrients.

Unhealthier sources of carbohydrates include white bread, pastries, sodas, and other highly processed or refined foods.  These items contain easily digested carbohydrates that may contribute to weight gain, interfere with weight loss, and promote diabetes and heart disease. 

It’s important to be aware of good carbohydrate options, especially in college as you have many unhealthy carbohydrate options. You should try and start the day off with some whole grains.

Try a hot cereal, like oatmeal (there are many plain instant oatmeal options that are dorm friendly!), or a cold cereal that lists a whole grain first on the ingredient list and is low in sugar. 

For lunch and midday snacks, use whole grain bread. Look for bread that lists as the first ingredient whole wheat, whole rye, or some other whole grain, or best yet: one that is made with only whole grains, such as 100% whole wheat bread.

However, while bread is always a good option, look beyond the bread aisle. Whole wheat bread is often made with finely ground flour, and bread products are often high in sodium. To vary up your carbohydrates, try a whole grain in salad form, such as brown rice with some protein options or quinoa in a salad.

Carbohydrates can also be found in healthy drink options. Choose whole fruit juice instead of processed artificially flavored juice. 

4 Tips for Healthy Eating in College

Dair-Yay!

Dairy is an essential part of your diet, and it’s important to incorporate healthy options of dairy. Consuming dairy products provides a number of health benefits such as building and maintaining strong bones.

Members of the dairy food group also provide nutrients that are vital for health and maintenance of your body. These nutrients include calcium, potassium, vitamin D, and protein. 

For those who do not consume milk-based products, individuals can choose dairy alternatives, fortified soy milk, and yogurt, which have calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D added. However, there is a common misconception with other products. Products that are sold as “milks” but made from plants (almond, rice, coconut, oat milk, etc.) may contain calcium, but they are not included as part of the dairy group because their nutrition content is not similar to dairy milk and fortified soy milk.

Fats: The Facts

Fat is an essential part of the diet that provides satiety and energy to the body and plays a role in cell function and in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Cutting it out of your diet isn’t going to do you any good, especially as a growing college student.

However, it is important to remember and be aware of your fat intake. Consuming too much fat, particularly saturated fats, may lead to a number of different health effects. Your favorite college meals may have a large abundance of saturated fats, such as frozen foods and hot water foods like ramen. 

Fun in Fermented 

With just saltwater and time, the magic of fermentation allows microorganisms to transform your everyday food into new and interesting options. Your cucumbers turn into pickles and your cabbage turns into sauerkraut.

Both food and beverages can undergo fermentation. Fermentation causes the product to adopt a different flavor, smell, and appearance. Fermented foods with live cultures contain probiotics that may aid in digestion. Consuming fermented food may help to temporarily diversify the gut microbiome which can support immune health.

Fermentation also helps the body better absorb certain nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc which are found naturally in foods. If you are looking for fermented options in your diet, here are a few ideas.

For breakfast, try mixing some yogurt with fresh (rainbow!) fruit and granola. For lunch, try adding a few slices of pickles to your sandwich. If you feel like trying something new, top your favorite salad with kimchi or sauerkraut. 

Debunking the freshman-15

While this saying isn’t as popular as it used to be, hearing this as a college freshman may cause some unnecessary anxiety. The “Freshman 15” is the supposed season when incoming freshmen living on campus experience significant weight gain.

However, do these students actually gain fifteen pounds when they go off to college? The answer, despite articles in popular media, is no.

Studies to date have shown that while freshman college students do tend to gain weight, its actually correlated to the natural process of physical growth, and not because of college. This weight gain is also far less than the reported fifteen pounds for most freshmen. Over time, many even tend to lose much of any weight they gain.

However, it is important to pay attention to your diet in college for your overall health, and not what the scale says.

Navigating the dining hall

Dining hall eating is like eating at a buffet for almost every meal. The options are wider and everything is cooked on the spot, making it more easily accessible for you. Here are a few tips to managing the wide assortment of dining hall food. 

First, start off with a single portion rather than larger multiple portions at one time. You may be tempted to load your plate or three of everything, especially if you’re walking into the dining hall extremely hungry.

However, you should always start with a single serving of each item. If you’re still feeling hungry, drink a glass of water while you wait 5 to 10 minutes to get a second plate.

A serving of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. A serving of pasta, rice, yogurt, or milk is about the size of your fist. A full serving of fruit or vegetables is about the size of a baseball. Make sure you are aware of what you are putting into your body and how much you’re putting in. 

Ensure that the food on your meal completes the food pyramid: one source of protein, one source of fruit or vegetables, one source of carbohydrates, and one source of healthy fats. While you don’t have to carry an information card of the food pyramid to every dining hall outing you should be fairly aware of completing the food pyramid every time you eat. 

Be sure to avoid processed foods. Especially at large universities, processed foods can be a common option. Whole grains and fresh produce are the healthiest and most desirable.

Lastly, look for some variety in the foods that you eat. Even with schools that have top-rated dining programs, sometimes their offerings for dinner hardly vary.

Attending a school that serves rotisserie chicken and salmon every night is great, but if you eat it every night you aren’t going to want to eat it anymore. The best way to have fun and balance your diet is to eat a lot of different foods instead of having the same thing over and over. Make sure you vary the types of meals you have in order to make healthy eating more desirable. 

Diet pitfalls 

We’re all guilty of the midnight ramen bowl we make for ourselves. However, there are many other pitfalls to be aware of in regards to diet. When studying, try to stop the mindless munching. This happens when you’re studying, partying, watching TV, hanging out with your friends, or stressing out. 

Sometimes you may not even be aware of the food you are intaking if you’re distracted by other tasks. If you’re a student who concentrates better on studying when eating something, try replacing your finger foods with healthier options.

Are you a pretzel muncher while you’re reading? Try celery sticks or baby carrots instead. Do you sip on a frappe in the study hall? Try some flavored water (water with lemon or water with cucumber) to hydrate you better during your study session. 

Try to avoid skipping meals in college. This is easier said than done as college students have busy lives. However, it’s all about making good investments with your time.

Because of the health benefits both physically and mentally of eating a well-balanced meal, spending that 15 to 30 minutes eating lunch might just be better for you in the long run. Not only will each meal help fuel you, but it will also help you develop healthy eating habits in the future.

Academically, you will benefit from all of the vitamins and nutrients that come with your well-balanced meal. You will be able to memorize things better and participate more in class with all the energy you have. 

Lastly, always think ahead. There are going to be days where you won’t have enough hours to stop at the dining hall to eat a full meal. For these occasions keep handy a stash of trail mix, protein bars, fresh or dried fruit, beef jerky, or anything else you’re interested in. 

Colleges with the best college food

When choosing what college to go to, food may not come to mind. Niche has made a list of top colleges with the best college food. This ranking was based on meal plan cost and student reviews.

These schools offer outstanding on-campus dining that students can easily access with healthy and quality food options across a wide range of cuisine and dietary preferences. The top 10 schools nationally (with some reviews highlights) are:

  1. University of California – Los Angeles: “ The food is really good even have some Persian food sometimes. The students are really nice and collaborative. I had a friend from UC Berkeley over and he was blown away by the food at Study at Hedrick”
  2. Virginia Tech: “Plus, the dining hall food is insanely good! If you are thinking about coming here, DO IT! You will have the time of your life, I promise!”
  3. University of Massachusetts – Amherst: “The social scene is great, the campus and area is beautiful, and the food is phenomenal! “
  4. St. Norbert College: “Dining hall is absolutely underrated. From turkey shawarma, to the potato bowl, and Korean beef bowl, the food is delicious.”
  5. California Baptist University: “Great campus and great food.”
  6. St. John Fisher College: “St. John Fisher College has a lot of wonderful aspects about it, including: the food, the professors, and the local area. For sure my favorite part about attending Fisher is having delightful ‘home-cooked’ meals.”
  7. James Madison University: “The food here is really great and all the programs are good.”
  8. University of San Diego: “ As far as the food goes, it is incomparable. When I came to college I expected to be disappointed I was no longer getting home cooked meals, yet I was surprised to see that the dining staff goes above and beyond to cater towards any food restriction and make the dining an overall pleasant experience.”
  9. Bates College: “Oh, and as advertised, the food is amazing!”
  10. Washington University in St. Louis: “The food and housing situations are also great.”

Your health MATTERS in college, and your diet plays a big part in that. If you are concerned or anxious about what you are consuming beyond the concerns discussed in this article, or if you want to try and come up with an individual food plan, always speak about it with a doctor or nutritionist.

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