Top 10 Tips for Eating Healthy in College

Maintaining healthy eating habits in college can sometimes be harder than trying to pass a quantum physics exam. College cafeterias, late-night snackathons, and packed schedules that leave little time for exercising often lead not only to “freshman 15″ weight gain, but to an unhealthy lifestyle that continues even after graduation.

So how can you avoid some of the dietary pitfalls common to your college campus? We spoke with two Certified Diabetes Educators, Lara Rondinelli, RD, LDN, CDE, and Jolene Sutter, MS, RD, CDN, as well as some current and former college students who gave their thoughts and suggestions on how to incorporate some healthy eating habits into your routine.

1.  Sneaky Snacks.

Companies like Nabisco are getting hip to the health food craze and have created a great line of snack packs that contain only 100 calories. Not only are these snacks healthier than their high caloric, hydrogenated oil-infused counterparts, but snack packs are also clearly labeled with carbohydrate information needed to correctly bolus. Jenny, a 19-year-old sophomore from San Diego, likes to bring these 100 calorie snack packs or Nature Valley granola bars with her to school. “There are pretzels, Sun Chips, crackers – basically everything in nice little packages, which are perfect for bringing to school,” she says.

Eating fruits and veggies are also a perfect snack time option. “An apple a day,” Ashley, a 20-year-old from Pennsylvania, suggests. “Cliché as it might be, I went to a health food store and bought Pacific Rose and Fuji apples by the bagful. I’d have at least one a day.”

2. Don’t “Do Lunch” Every Day.

It’s a typical social activity to meet friends for lunch, dinner, coffee, or dessert. Not only can this expand your waistline from the heavy portions most restaurants give out these days, but you might also see the size of your wallet start to shrink. Want to switch that around? Don’t make ‘meeting for lunch’ a regular social activity, but find other ways to socialize. Jenny suggests, “Instead, you can meet friends during breaks to go jogging on the track at school.”

3. Food Fuel.

Bleary-eyed students up late studying for exams are a common sight on college campuses. But Lara Rondinelli, a diabetes educator at Rush University, warns, “Large quantities of caffeine are not good for anyone and even if these drinks are fortified with some vitamins this does not classify them as a health food.” She says college students who skip meals in favor of energy drinks and pots of coffee need to focus on fueling with lean meats, vegetables, fresh fruit, and milk or light yogurt.

Jolene Sloat, a diabetes educator at Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University, adds that protein bars and meal replacements can be good alternatives occasionally, and that these bars usually are labeled with the important nutrition information. But, she says, “These foods are not ideal for daily consumption because they may be lacking in some of the nutrients that you would get from a balanced meal.”

4. Be the “Designated Driver.”

Eating late at night while studying or partying is a major temptation, but you should do your best to consume all or most of your calories before 7:00 pm. Sara, a 27-year-old who now works at a college in south Florida, shares her experiences when she was a student. “One thing that helped me with healthy eating in college was remembering that just because everyone else is eating does not mean that I needed to,” she says. “My college had a great mom and pop doughnut shop nearby and students (especially my friends) enjoyed many late night runs. I could be the ‘designated driver’ and go along for the ride, be there for the jokes and the stories but not have to deal with the blood sugar swings of a jelly doughnut.” Sara says it’s all about staying balanced, choosing specific times to indulge in your favorites. Don’t deprive yourself, or you’re likely to binge later, so keep your treats–whatever they may be–in moderation.

5. Find a Routine That Works.

The first week or two of college is often overwhelming and chaotic, but once you get used to your class schedule, it’s important to figure out convenient times when you are free to eat meals. They will most likely vary from day to day, but creating a routine for each day will help you avoid the eat-and-run.

“The first week is rough, but then you know, I eat at these times on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and these times on Tuesday and Thursday, and you plan accordingly,” says Allison, a 23-year-old living in D.C. who graduated last year. “I’ve found that I have a harder time keeping my sugars in check when I am at home, where my routine is gone, than when I’m at school.”

6. Get an “A” in Fitness.

An article about eating healthy wouldn’t be complete without nutrition’s partner-in-crime: exercise. Colleges often offer physical education classes, which make it easier to stay fit. Jenny says, “I take a PE class every semester (for fun) and so taking this class gives me exercise and a chance to meet friends who are into sports like myself. My school offers classic sports like soccer and volleyball as well as more outdoorsy sports such as surfing, kayaking, and sailing. So there’s something for everyone.”

7. Channel Your Inner Julia Child.

Whether you are still living in the dorms or are living on your own in your first apartment, visiting a local grocery store is a much cheaper and healthier option than eating out for all your meals.

Your shopping list should include these healthy suggestions: fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, lean meats, eggs, frozen and canned vegetables, store brand whole-grain cereals (Lara suggests aiming for greater than 3 grams of fiber per serving), and low-fat dairy products. Cheaper options are often the store-brand versions of your favorite cereals and flavors of yogurt. Jolene recommends stocking up on canned foods, like beans, soups, and vegetables.

“I would buy the frozen Perdue chicken tenderloins (not the breaded ones) and cook those with some garlic (they were a staple!) and then add them to salads [or] stir frys or Asian noodles,” Allison suggests. Ashley adds, “I bought a 5-pound sack of basmati rice in the beginning of the year and it looks like it will last me until the end. Basmati rice is lower in carbs than white or brown rice.”

8. Get Creative.

  • Ramen noodles are a staple among college students, so Jolene has a few suggestions:
  • Drain out some of the liquid portion since it may have half a day’s worth of sodium
  • Add 1-2 cups of frozen vegetables before heating up the ramen noodles to get extra fiber, vitamins and minerals
  • Add 2-3 ounces of lean chicken, beans, or tofu for added protein and fiber
  • Reduce the portion size of the ramen noodles when adding in other foods to cut down on the calories, saturated fat, and sodium content

9. Stay Balanced.

Even when you are out with friends at the mall, you can stay balanced with your choices at fast food restaurants.

“Most places like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s offer a grilled chicken sandwich,” Lara says. “I’d recommend ordering it without mayo and substitute mustard in place of it.” Other options include a green salad with grilled chicken and low-fat dressing or fresh fruit like sliced applies. Even a hamburger is better than sauce-heavy Big Macs or Quarter Pounders.

10. When in doubt, ask.

Creating a personalized nutrition and fitness plan can take time and work, so if you have questions, your endocrinologist should be able to recommend a nutritionist you can speak to. Your doctor or your university health center probably has a nutritionist on staff, so make an appointment if you run into stumbling blocks, or if you’re seeing your blood sugar average or your weight starting to climb.

Another great place to ask questions is your local dining hall. Sara recently had a conversation with the head of dining services. “She said that there is nothing that they serve that she cannot tell me the exact carb count of,” she says. “We just have to ask.”