Healthy Eating for College Students
Admit it. You figured that going away to college should mean getting away from having to listen to your parents nagging you about eating junk food. While you understand that pursuing your bachelor’s degree is focused on loftier matters than your ability to let a bag of potato chips serve as a substitute for supper, standard campus fare is supposed to be pizza and beer, right? With an unlimited supply of Cheetos and soft drinks. You didn’t go away to college to become a health nut. Ramen noodles are as healthy as you’re prepared to be.
Before you dive into that bag of Doritos, consider this: according to health.com, a 2012 study at Auburn University discovered that over the four-year span of college, 70 percent of students gained from 12-37 pounds, with the overall percentage of students who were overweight increasing from 18 percent to 31 percent. Along with the weight gain, body fat composition and waist circumference increased as well. The study was published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. This is not good news for students who look forward to college as a time when they can shed their awkward high school caterpillar-self and blossom into a butterfly.
What caused the weight gain? Vending machine snacks, choosing the fattening options in the cafeteria, late-night studying (accompanied by late-night munching) and lack of physical activity. What can you do to prevent it?
Pay attention. You can head home for the next holiday break and still fit into your clothes if you follow a few easy, tasty suggestions that will make it possible to eat healthy with minimal effort.
Bananas and Your Brain
If you’re living on campus, you have a dining hall for food choices, and dining halls typically offer fresh fruit. Make sure to take fresh fruit daily and bring it back to your dorm so that, when you get hungry late at night, you’re peeling a banana instead of ripping open a bag of corn chips.
A 2008 study found that students who ate a banana prior to taking an exam scored better than those who didn’t eat a banana. What’s so wonderful about bananas? Bananas are high in potassium, which is important for keeping your brain, heart, and nerves in good health. Brain health and bachelor’s degree are a winning team, so keeping bananas in your room is a smart decision.
That’s right; choosing a piece of dark chocolate for a snack is a healthy choice. It’s good for heart health and strong enough to overpower cravings for other sweets. Dark chocolate increases your endorphin levels (the “I’m happy” hormone in your body), thereby increasing your concentration. According to a 2013 study, people who drank two cups of cocoa daily for a month benefitted from improved blood flow to the brain, and also performed better on memory tests. The trick, however, is realizing that one square will be enough. If you feel sluggish in the afternoon, and that last class of the day seems to drag? Try a square of dark chocolate for an afternoon snack and see if it gives you more zip. Remember, though; this is only true for dark chocolate.
Fruit and Nuts
Fruit and nuts are a natural way to enhance your concentration, so try walnuts, berries, and grapes. One of nature’s perfect foods, blueberries have been linked to improved learning and memory; try one and one-half cups a day. If you can’t get fresh blueberries, frozen works too. A 2010 report published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry indicates that blueberries boost memory, which could come in handy if you’re a little shaky on the amendments to the Constitution and you have a political science midterm coming up.
A study discovered that students who ate walnuts on a regular basis proved to be better at deductive reasoning. While nuts have fats, it’s a healthy fat, but nonetheless, you’re better if you eat one ounce per day, no more. How much is an ounce? Enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
Going On The Offensive With Snack Attacks
Watch the clock! If you’re awake and studying at midnight and your stomach starts to growl, you’re hungry. Snacks don’t have to be the downfall of a healthy diet. Snack stress drives you to want something to eat without knowing just what it is that you’re craving. But late night isn’t a good time to head out for a stromboli. Keep food handy that’s low-calorie and filling.
If you’re really finding that the snack attack is overwhelming you and you know you’re going to surrender, do so wisely. So you need to have options ready when that impulse strikes. Try popcorn. It’s munchy and crunchy, and also light if you skip the buttered version. Nuts are a terrific choice, as are raw vegetables. If you choose to eat a snack bar, make sure it’s one that has less than 15 grams of sugar per serving. Fresh fruit is always a good option, but dried fruit is tasty and healthy as well.
If you have a refrigerator, you can keep celery sticks, baby carrots, and other fresh vegetables handy. If you want to liven them up, add a dip made from low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese. Pretzels, rice cakes and whole wheat crackers can satisfy when you need something crunchy. Visualize the vending machine with a giant “DO NOT” sign in front of it so that you’re not tempted to indulge in candy or chips.
Remember that especially salty foods can make you feel tired and bloated the next day. That’s why apples in your room are the smart choice. If you can’t study for your biology exam because your mind is seeing slices of pizza instead of photosynthesis, go ahead and have a slice, but don’t add pepperoni for a topping, and ask your favorite pizza provider to go light on the cheese.
Stint on sugar: use it lightly. If you’re trying to lose some of those 37 pounds you’ve gained as a college student, don’t go on a starvation diet. They’re harmful to your health and they don’t last. Dieting needs to be done with your brain as well as your appetite. Healthy, balanced meals and exercise will reform your bad habits.
What About Breakfast?
You might think that if your morning doesn’t start with Starbucks, you won’t make it past the am yawns. But if you really want to find some sure-fire solutions to keep alert, there are easy ways to make breakfast a healthy habit. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and with good reason. Not only does it give you the first boost of energy to start your morning off right, but studies have also shown that breakfast eaters are at lower risk for obesity, hypertension and diabetes in comparison to those who skip breakfast and end up ravenous by 11:00 am, scarfing down a bag of Cheez-Its from the vending machine.
Making the high-fiber and protein choice keeps you from feeling hungry too soon after eating. Oatmeal or eggs for breakfast is a healthy start to the day. Research indicates that the choline in eggs helps maintain the health of your brain cell membranes and the omega-3 in your egg yolk has a positive effect on both memory and mood. So not only will it help you remember what you studied the night before, but it might make you cheerful when you’re heading into class. You can’t beat a positive attitude.
Oatmeal is low in calories and high in staying power; your stomach will feel fuller longer. Oatmeal is a whole grain which your body digests slowly and provides your brain and body with a steady supply of energy. And don’t forget those B vitamins, along with fiber, potassium, zinc, and vitamin E that come in that bowl of oatmeal. If oatmeal seems bland, then experiment. Add fresh fruit for sweetness, or cinnamon. One study showed that the scent of cinnamon improves performance in several types of memory tasks. Maybe it’s worth eating cinnamon-flavored oatmeal when you’re studying during finals week.
Milk and yogurt, which are fortified with Vitamin D, can add to your brain-healthy breakfast choices. Low-fat dairy products bring along the calcium, protein, and B vitamins that are good for concentration.
You Don’t Have Time not to Have Time for Lunch
Class schedules often mean there’s no time for lunch, but the middle of the day is a good time to get something health. Salad and soup, or a wrap (something around 500 calories) fuels you for the rest of the day. Salads are great, but again, make the smart choice. Include proteins in the salad; the protein is sustaining, and won’t leave you hungry again an hour later. Remember that if you load up your salad with creamy dressings and bacon bits, you’re adding calories and fats.
Nutritionists like to remind us that moderation is the key to healthy eating. If you know that fast food is your weakness, decide how you’re going to compromise. Limit the real threats like French fries (oh, so good but ohhhh, so bad) and fried chicken. Keep your eyes on the portions and don’t overdo it.
Healthy Dining Hall Dinner
Day is done and it’s time for dinner. You’re a college student so there’s a good chance that you’ll be studying in the evening. Choose the dinner options in the dining hall that will help your brain focus on your assignments. Going easy on the carbs will give you a better night’s sleep and before you hit the pillow, you’ll stay focused and keep alert. Good choices include salmon, chicken, or steak with vegetables; you can’t go wrong with the leafy greens. If you’re a vegetarian, a tofu stir-fry, light on the oil, loaded with veggies, is a good meal. Salmon’s amino acids keep you focused. Salmon is loaded with those omega-3 oils, so after a long, hard day of classes, the protein helps to rebuild your brain cells, slow cognitive decline (you know that that philosophy exam turned your brain inside out), and strengthen the brain synapses that are related to memory.
What To Do To Stay Healthy
You’re young and healthy; why should you have to take steps to remain that way? Because college life isn’t necessarily conducive to a holistic lifestyle. There’s academic stress, social challenges that are new and sometimes overwhelming, the experience of being away from home and a familiar setting; and new challenges. The glamor of college soon settles into the reality of exams, roommates, work, and fitting in. Don’t neglect your physical health as you adjust to the next four years of your life.
James Davidson, the assistant vice president for student wellness at the University of Nevada, tells students, “I advise students to maintain a balance. Your health is more than the physical condition of your body. There are multiple aspects of wellness to consider . . . When one area gets out of balance, it usually affects the other aspects of your life, whether you realize it or not.”
Start off healthy even before you leave for college. One of the easiest things you can do to maintain your overall health at the beginning of your college career is to visit your family doctor. Get vaccinated against flu, tetanus, whooping cough, meningitis, and human papillomavirus.
Make sure you get enough sleep. Lack of sleep has been linked to weight gain. If you’re getting less than six hours of sleep per night, your hormone levels, which control your appetite, cravings, and metabolism, can be affected, leading you to crave the high-caloric snacks and junk food.
3. Bone Building 101
Think ahead. You won’t always be twenty. This is the time when you need to build up your stores of calcium so that you aren’t fighting osteoporosis several decades down the road. Maybe milk isn’t your beverage of choice; that’s okay–you can obtain calcium from cheese, yogurt, and also green leafy vegetables. If you’re trying to cut back on calories, you can select low-fact yogurt and cheese.
Are you sufficiently hydrated? If you’re feeling tired, it might be that you just need water to fight off dehydration. Starting your morning off with a 10-ounce glass of water is a fantastic habit to get into. Coffee and energy drinks, despite their reputation for adding liquid adrenalin to the day, actually add to dehydration. If you think water is too bland, squeeze lemon juice into it for flavor and some citrus pizzazz.
Alcohol may be the campus favorite, but remember that it’s not low-cal, and in exchange for the 100 calories that you imbibe with a glass of wine, a light beer or an ounce of liquor, you’re not taking in any nutrients.
Eating healthy makes you feel better, study better, fight off germs better, and helps you to build a good foundation for the rest of your life. The four years of college will be a forever part of your future, so invest wisely in your food choices.