Working with my college intern this past summer brought back memories about the days of dining on campus and students’ mindset around eating and dieting. Some things don’t change. Today, like over two decades ago, maintaining a healthy diet at college is a challenge. Why? College campuses create prime circumstances in which less-than-ideal eating habits can thrive—hence the famous freshmen fifteen. This is because: 1) students are mostly limited to the offerings of dining halls, fast food joints, and easy snacks; 2) schedules are awkward due to classes, late nights out, and homework; 3) time and budget pressure often limit students’ options for fresh, nourishing foods; and 4) many students do not have access to a kitchen in which they can cook and meal prep themselves. What students therefore fall prey too, is eating for convenience, consuming processed food, eating against the body’s biological clock, and drinking way too much alcohol.
But maintaining a healthy diet on campus isn’t hopeless. Here is a list of tips you can start implementing into your lifestyle to remain mindful and in control of your food intake, while still getting to enjoy this unique experience.
- Increase your consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and plant-based proteins, and decrease your intake of animal-sourced foods and processed foods. By no means do you need to give up any foods you love entirely but choose plant-based ingredients whenever possible. Think about reduction rather than elimination.
- Eat the following foods once a week or less: processed cereals, sandwiches, pizza, bagels, chips, fried foods (think onion rings, french fries), coffee drinks with added sugar and fat (flavorings, milk, cream i.e., Frappuccino, mocha lattes w whipped cream). Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages (including fruit juice and sodas) and save them for special occasions.
- Avoid late night eating. Simply make the choice for a hard stop at 9 P.M. and stick to it.
- Establish a limit to how many alcoholic drinks you’ll have in a day. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say the fewer the better (less than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 for women).
- Create an eating routine and start meal planning. Establish how many meals you’ll eat in a day; studies show that two to three is best for overall health. Many studies also show that breakfast really is the most important meal for staving off weight gain and chronic disease, so start with that. A meal plan of breakfasts could look like this: oatmeal with berries three times a week (say, Monday, Wednesday, Friday); smoothies on Tuesdays and Thursdays; a simple egg dish with a side of veggies or fruit on one weekend day; and a fun meal (i.e. waffles, pancakes, bagel, processed cereal, bacon, doughnut, one of the above-mentioned coffee drinks) on the other weekend day. Create a similar schedule for lunch and let dinner be the meal that’s more spontaneous.
- Watch your portion sizes. Google portion size graphics so you have visuals to keep in mind when you’re making a plate. For example, a proper portion of protein is the size of a deck of cards; a piece of fruit should be about the size of a baseball, or half a cup if served in a bowl; and a single serving of cooked grains is about half a cup.
- Cook your food as frequently as you can; if dorms with kitchens are available, seek them out.
- Use the Hunger Fullness Scale to learn how to listen to your body’s intuitive signals about hunger and satiety.
- Create a soothing environment in which to eat. Put away your devices, and replace them with things like candles, calming music, and great friends around. Studies show that a stress-reducing atmosphere and socializing at meals are key to well-being and longevity.
- Eat slowly, chewing your food close to twenty times per bite.
- Ignore fad diets, which are notoriously difficult to follow and set users up for failure. Instead, develop a personalized pattern of eating that is healthy but also includes the foods you love in moderate amounts so that you never feel deprived.
- Follow inspiring nutrition and cooking accounts on social media. They can remind you that healthy foods are delicious and easy to make and show you how to make them. Look for accounts that are information-rich and promote mindful, balanced, and nutritious eating, not ones that focus on attaining a certain type of body or simply losing weight.
- Choose your dining companions wisely. Who you surround yourself with makes all the difference in the world when it comes to establishing and keeping health eating habits.
- If you feel you succumb to emotional eating (eating because you’re angry or upset, stressed or anxious, rather than hungry) there are many things you can do to curb this habit. Here are just a few: make sure to get enough sleep; get rid of enticing-yet-nutrient- poor foods in your room; try not to succumb to emotionally-driven cravings such as sugar sweetened beverages, and drink water, tea, and black coffee instead; do something visual to stamp out your mind’s pictures of the foods you crave (play a board game, cards, a phone game); when you feel an urge to overindulge, talk to a friend, go for a walk, exercise, or do an art or craft—or anything else to keep your body busy; listen to calming music; meditate; immerse yourself in nature.