College is a fun and enriching time for a lot of kids, but it can also be a challenging time, especially when it comes to staying healthy. There’s a reason the famed “freshman 15” is more than a myth, coming from someone who experienced those extra 15 or so pounds herself. For many students, it’s their first time being completely responsible for their meals, while at the same time living on a tight budget and not having access to their own kitchen or cooking tools. That’s a lot of challenges at one time! With the busy and irregular schedules that many college students have, who has time to search out healthy food, right? WRONG. Eating healthy isn’t just about spending all your free time at Whole Foods (nor is it for most of us non-college students!). It’s about a mindset just as much as it is about the action of putting food into your mouth.
It slightly stumps me now that so many college students (including myself a *few* years ago) see eating as something to get out of the way or something they don’t have time to do properly. College often equals a busy strenuous schedule which requires ENERGY. Food equals energy when done right. So why not USE FOOD AS ENERGY? Doing this doesn’t require so much extra time and effort – it just requires a commitment to making the best out of the options you have and actually choosing to GIVE yourself foods that will provide your body with nutrients, taste, and energy. And as with most things, find a balance and listen to your body.
So without further ado, here are some tips for the busy college student.
1) DRINK water. I mean a lot of water. More than you think you need. Make a habit out of it. By the time you notice you’re thirsty, you’re already in the beginning stages of being dehydrated. On the same note, watch how much caffeine you are drinking. I know I know, that sounds almost impossible, especially during exams. But if you eat well and use your food to give you energy you won’t need as much caffeine. If you do drink caffeine, try to drink one sip of water for every sip of tea/coffee. Coffee and tea are not only dehydrating, but they make your teeth yellow. So follow this advice to keep your smile beautiful if not for anything else 🙂
2) GIVE yourself the nutrients you need. The key is to think of the way you eat as GIVING your body nutrients, not depriving it of the “bad stuff”. Focus every meal around a protein (meats, fish, eggs) and give yourself plenty of beautiful fruits and veggies. Make sure to include some healthy fats (nuts, olive oil, avocado, cheese in moderation) in your daily diet. This doesn’t mean completely cut out carbs and grains. Whole grains are a good addition to any meal but as an accompaniment, not as the main event!
One easy dish to cook is stir-fry with meat and veggies (chicken is good and cheap!). You can switch up the ingredients and the sauces you use (doesn’t even have to be asian/soy-based…try mixing in some balsamic vinegar & olive oil and nuts!), and throw in some herbs for flavor. If you don’t have a kitchen, try getting a hot plate, slow cooker, or George Foreman grill – all of these can be plugged in and used to cook a variety of dishes.
If you’re on a meal plan, it can be tough to do this, but there are some ways:
- The salad bar is your friend. This doesn’t mean you have to eat salad for every meal (how boring!). But usually the salad bar will have pure proteins without any sauce, like eggs and chicken. You could get creative and make a little dish with some of the protein from the salad bar with a little of the sauce from the hot food section.
- Look for grilled anything, especially proteins
- Look for the hidden protein. Sometimes the hot food items may contain proteins surrounded by goop like pasta or a sandwich. If either of these comes with protein like meatballs or grilled meat, get it and ditch the bread/pasta/flour taco/etc, or replace it with whole grains.
- Make amendments to your ramen – if you don’t eat ramen (really??) apply this to other dishes. Swap some of the noodles for veggies (back to the salad bar!) and make sure you’ve got a protein on there.
3) START the day off right. The point above applies to breakfast as well. Eating more protein and less carbs/sweet stuff at breakfast will give you energy and get your brain going, and it will help curb your cravings for carbs during the day. One easy way to do this is to boil a bunch of eggs in advance so that you can grab 2 or more every morning. Try putting things like soy sauce, sriracha, hot sauce or ketchup on your eggs for flavor. Add a carton of greek yogurt and you’ve got yourself a good quick breakfast!
4) SNACK smart. Unhealthy snacks can creep up on you as you mindlessly reach for another potato chip while you’re studying. Don’t do this – you’ll fill up your stomach with empty calories and leave no room for the good stuff. Again, you want to FUEL yourself with your food, not deplete your digestive system trying to digest highly processed junk food. Fruits make great snacks (fresh fruit or natural not-too-sugary fruit snacks like Barnana), especially when paired with a form of protein/healthy fat like peanut butter or a bit of cheese. Also if you like snack bars, try one that has protein (e.g. nuts, meat) as well as carbs and has natural ingredients – if the ingredients list is a long list of words that look like a foreign language, it’s probably not so natural. I highly recommend never leaving home without a water bottle and a healthy snack.
6) SLEEP. I know this is another tough one, but you have to make a decision here. Sleep is the body’s time to repair itself, including working on its digestion. Sleep deprivation can cause an imbalance in certain hormones that regulate metabolism, and can cause cravings for carbs and junk food. It may take some time away from studying (or partying) but you may also experience a boost in productivity as a result that makes up for it!
7) TIMING, timing timing. Eating at regular intervals, i.e. all 3 meals at relatively the same time each day, helps to regulate your metabolism. Also avoiding eating late at night (that’s those late night snacks after studying or partying) could make a world of difference in how you feel the next day and even your weight. Just think about it – do you really want that greasy pizza sitting there in your stomach when you go to sleep?
4) BE balanced and flexible. In my experience, doing things in an extreme way is not sustainable. If you love sweets, have some dark chocolate or ice cream, but do it mindfully. If you love pizza, same thing, have it once in a while but really taste it and make it a special occasion. Even with the point above, if eating regularly isn’t going to work with your schedule, don’t fight against it – flow with it. The only thing I would urge you to try if this is the case is to take one meal a day and really make it a meal. Sit down at a table, make sure you are giving yourself the nutrients you need as well as delicious flavor. Really taste your food. And keep those healthy snacks handy so that you can grab something good for you if you can’t have 3 good balanced meals.
8) MODERATE your alcohol intake. Let’s be realistic – college students drink sometimes. But did you know that a bottle of beer has about the same number of calories as a bag of potato chips? Plus have you ever noticed that drinking makes you want to eat potato chips and other junk food? Double-whammy.
9) GET in some exercise. You may not be a college athlete, but there are still things you can do to get in your exercise, which will help boost your metabolism, burn calories, and give your mind a chance to reset. From personal experience, doing periods of intense cardiovascular exercise has a cathartic effect and often gives me a huge boost in mental clarity and productivity. The obvious choice is working out at the school gym, but if you have good weather you can also go for a run outside. Find little ways to be active – instead of driving somewhere or taking the subway, walk. Instead of taking the elevator , walk up the stairs or escalator. Try to do something moderately active at least 4-5 days a week, even if it’s just walking around the block a few times.
10) BE gentle with yourself. What we’re talking about here is lifestyle re-balancing and developing a mindful relationship with your body and food. Overall as you follow these tips, keep in mind that the purpose is to nurture yourself and give your body what it needs. Food is an essential element of our lives and an opportunity for sharing and enjoyment. Don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t stick to all of these tips immediately. It is a process and your body will give you the messages you need to know what is right for it.
Good luck and leave a message below if you have any questions or comments. I hope this is helpful!