- If you’re heading off to college in the fall, you might be worried about gaining the dreaded “freshman 15.” But hitting the books need not equate to weight gain. Taking care to nourish your body with proper nutrition helps break the urge to binge on junk — and may improve your academic performance.
Good nutrition matters because, without the right combination of macro- and micronutrients, your health will suffer. Deficiencies in specific vitamins and minerals, for example, can lead to negative health outcomes such as lack of concentration and focus — both of which you need to excel in your studies. Plus, you get more out of your college experience when you’re well-nourished and feeling your best.
From the building blocks of your body’s nutritional needs to tips for healthy snacks, here’s what you need to know to stay on top of your health during college.
To stay healthy, you need to consume the right combination of macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients make up the bulk of your diet and come in three forms.
- Protein: Because they’re the building blocks of strong muscles, you need the right combination of amino acids daily to make a complete protein source. If you eat meat, this proves easy — meat is a complete protein. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, you can get protein from nuts, seeds and legumes, as well as deep, leafy greens like spinach and kale.
- Carbohydrates: Carbs get a bad rap in popular fad diets today, but your body needs some carbohydrates for energy. Opt for whole grains instead of bleached and enriched white flour products whenever possible. If you have an intolerance to gluten, opt for ancient grains like quinoa and amaranth.
- Fats: Many college students skip fats to lose weight, but your body needs healthy fat to protect your brain and neurological health. You can find healthy fats in vegetables like avocados, as well as in nuts and fish.
Your body also needs micronutrients, which consist of vitamins and minerals. Deficiencies in some vitamins can impede your ability to focus and damage your health. For example, if you follow a vegan diet, you’re prone to a deficiency in vitamin B-12, as this micronutrient exists in animal-based foods. Studies performed on vegans indicate some suffer nerve damage due to a lack of B-12. Talk to your physician about supplementary B-12 if you embrace this lifestyle.
Fill Up With Phytonutrients and Keep Track With Calories
Researchers learn more about the benefits of various phytonutrients nearly daily. Phytonutrients refer to chemicals in plants that give them their signature colors. Every color of fruit and vegetable represents a different phytonutrient profile.
To ensure you consume a full array of phytonutrients, strive to fill half your plate with fruits and veggies at each meal. Select those in a variety of vibrant hues. Break outside your comfort zone and sample new food varieties at the international tables in your college cafeteria. If you’ve never enjoyed baba ganoush or ratatouille, you’re in for a treat!
Calories count, too, especially if you’re fighting to stave off the freshman 15 — or to keep your weight within your target range, for that matter. If you struggle to lose weight, strive to choose healthier foods over trying the latest fad diet. Finding support from friends or a healthy community can help motivate you towards your nutrition goals. Just remember to exercise sensitivity even when joking about your weight struggles with friends — whether you’re trying to lose or gain weight, remember others might have the opposite challenge.
Base your caloric needs off your age, gender and activity level. If you’re an athlete, you’ll need to consume more calories than sedentary students. Even if your exercise consists of little more than walking to class, you still need to eat at least 1,200 calories daily. The pressures of college life lead many young people, particularly women, to develop eating disorders, and overly restricting your caloric intake slows your metabolism.
Healthy Options to Have On-Hand
Now that you understand the basics about what you need to consume and how much, how can you make healthier choices? The demands of college life leave little room, after all, for weekend meal-prepping. Plus, most dorm rooms lack cooking amenities other than a small microwave or hot pot.
Fortunately, the miracle of modern conveniences makes eating healthy easier. Before heading back to school, or when hitting up your parents for a care package, make a list of healthy snacks and gadgets to make dormitory dining easier. Here are a few healthy favorites and dorm-room essentials:
- Air popper and air-popped popcorn: Air-popped popcorn contains only 30 calories per serving if you avoid the buttery topping. You can spice up air-popped popcorn dozens of ways for few calories. Try a blend of turmeric and paprika for an Indian-inspired flavor — the turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory and can help ease that morning-after headache. Or, sprinkle on cinnamon and pumpkin spice for a sweet fall treat.
- Pre-cut veggies and grab-and-go fruit: You can boost your vegetable and fruit intake by keeping pre-cut and grab-and-go snacks in your room. Baby carrots with hummus taste great, and the chickpeas in the dip provide healthy fats. You can easily snag an apple or banana even if you wake up at 7:59 for your 8 a.m. trigonometry class.
- String cheese or non-dairy yogurt: If you consume animal products, string cheese makes a light, nutritious snack high in calcium, a necessary mineral for bone and teeth health. But even if you follow a vegan lifestyle, you can get a calcium boost from non-dairy Greek yogurt.
- Nuts and seeds: Nuts like walnuts contain high levels of magnesium, a mineral necessary for brain health and focus. Pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, likewise contain high amounts of this mineral, as well as a hefty dose of iron, a substance your body needs to make red blood cells.
- A small microwave and hot pot: Even dorm dwellers can squeeze in a small microwave and a hot pot. You can create healthy meals without taking much space, and even up your beverage game. For example, you can heat water for herbal tea in the microwave.
Related reading: Countertop Microwave Buying Guide
More reading: The Best Microwave Food Steamer
Tips For Making Healthy Choices
Eating healthy doesn’t end in your dorm room. Many college students save on their food budget by enrolling in a campus meal plan. By following some of these savvy tips, you can make the most of your university cafeteria.
- Start by selecting the right plate. Your eyes automatically want to fill up the white space on your platter, so if your cafeteria offers a variety of sizes, opt for a small to medium-sized plate instead of the largest one offered. That way, you create the illusion you’re eating more. Plus, you can sample small amounts of fattening dishes, like that luscious-looking lasagna, without the subsequent guilt.
- Hit up the salad or vegetable bar first. Remember, your goal is to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. Top a spinach and kale salad with colorful peppers and radishes and avocado-based green goddess dressing for a drizzle of healthy fat. Or, choose a fruit parfait instead of ice cream for the dessert course.
- Make healthy swaps. Are you running late or rushing between back-to-back classes and lack time for anything more than a slice of pizza? Upgrade your lunch by selecting whole wheat or even a cauliflower crust. Instead of pepperoni and ham, opt for a plain, low-fat cheese slice, or pile on vegetable toppings like onions and spinach.
- Do allow yourself the occasional treat. After all, part of the fun of college life is trying new things! But strike a balance. If, for example, you cave in to that craving for a burger and fries at lunch, opt for soup and salad when dinnertime rolls around. Remember, one day of overeating need not spoil an otherwise healthy lifestyle. Commit to doing a bit more exercise the next day to burn off the additional calories, and return to clean eating at your next few meals.
Suggestions and Recipe Ideas for Easy, Healthy Meals
Whether you reside in a dorm or rent an apartment off-campus, you don’t need to resign yourself to four years of ramen noodles to earn your degree. It’s possible to create nutritious, inexpensive meals using only a microwave or a hot pot. That doesn’t mean you have to stop eating noodles altogether — but you can do much better than a $.29 pack of processed springiness. Here’s how:
- First, you’ll need to stock your mini-fridge with some staples. If you enjoy a friendly relationship with your roommate, you can coordinate your shopping. Take turns purchasing ingredients or work out another equitable system for splitting expenses.
- You don’t need your mama’s spice rack for flavor, but keeping basics on hand helps. Feeling like you have a green thumb? Turn your dorm room windowsill into an herb garden chock-full of basil and oregano, chamomile and other spices you enjoy. If you leave a clove of garlic sitting out, it may sprout — meaning you get more of the awesome stuff for free!
- Alternately, shop the ethnic aisle of your local grocery. Many spices in the baking aisle charge more for packaging than the product inside. Many Spanish herbs, for example, come in plain baggies that prove easy to store when space is tight, and they cost pennies on the dollar when compared to brand names. And, of course, remember your salt and pepper!
- Other staples to keep on hand include milk, butter and eggs if you consume animal products. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, stock almond milk, nondairy plain yogurt and applesauce as a baking substitute if you have access to an oven.Related reading: Convection Oven Buying Guide
Stumped for what to make, but don’t like heading to the cafeteria? Try these inexpensive recipes you can make in a hot pot or without cooking at all:
- Instant pot egg bites: These make a perfect grab-and-go breakfast you can prep the night before. You can add veggies or meat if you like, and you can separate the egg whites to decrease calorie count further.
- Vegan yogurt parfait: Layer nondairy yogurt, granola and berries in a glass. How easy is that?Related reading: 6 Reasons Why Breakfast Is The Best Meal Of The Day
- One-skillet taco chicken and rice: This dish screams comfort food, but weighs in at under 400 calories — perfect for a light meal. The aroma will drive everyone to your room for a visit, hoping to snag a taste.
- Vegan burritos: Burritos fit in your hand, perfect when you’re running late for class. Make these in a hot pot and never get hangry during your three-hour psych lecture again.
- One-pot spaghetti: Who doesn’t love spaghetti? If you don’t eat meat, substitute vegan crumbles or omit that ingredient.
- Instant-pot ramen noodles: This article has used the terms “hot pot,” “one pot” and “instant pot” interchangeably. And yes — if you’re craving this dorm staple, you can make it healthier with this recipe.
You Can Practice Good Nutrition in College
Going away to school doesn’t automatically mean gaining weight or falling prey to unhealthy habits. By following the tips above, you can maintain your health and fuel your academic success.