How to maintain good nutrition in college
Navigating freshman year of college can be overwhelming, with new roommates, unfamiliar buildings and a sea of strange faces. Schedules are confusing, finding classes requires multiple references to the campus map, and making friends feels like starting over from scratch; and often, junk food can be an easy but unhealthy coping mechanism.
Year after year, freshmen students face a daunting challenge: learning how to eat right on their own. Although the “Freshman 15” is a popular belief, there is limited evidence to support it. That being said, weight gain is still a real consequence due to the development of unhealthy eating habits. While you can’t always be in control of who you room with or which professor you end up with, you can control what food you put in your body.
To avoid unhealthy binge eating, it is recommended to have well balanced meals every day, and that means eating all macronutrients, including carbohydrates, proteins and fats, in proper ratios fitting your individual body. Using various online resources like macronutrient calculators, students can identify their own needs based on their personal body specifications. In general, the acceptable daily macronutrient intake ranges from 45%-65% for carbohydrates, 20%-35% for fats and 10%-35% for protein. Aside from this, skipping meals can lead to extreme hunger and then difficulty controlling portioning in your next meal or eating foods that are calorie rich but nutrient deficit.
Knowing how to navigate the dining hall is perhaps the most important. The pizza and the dessert bar may be compelling, but for every slice of pepperoni pizza and piece of cake there is a healthier equivalent such as whole grains and fruit, which can be just as filling and much more nutritious. Practicing portion control, avoiding too much of one type of macronutrient such as an abundance of carbs and eating fruit for dessert are all ways to make sure you are prioritizing health. And if you really want a slice of pizza, hit the salad bar too on your way there to balance your meals out: everything is okay in moderation.
While you might be tempted to pick waffle fries or chow mein every other day at the dining options in the Student Union, it’s important to keep moderation in mind. For students who use meal exchange and can’t pick and choose exactly what to substitute in their meals, there are ways to curb intake of unhealthy foods by simply staying aware unnecessary calories that extra sauces and toppings can add to your food. Most meal exchange items provide large servings of food, so saving some for later is perfectly fine. While you’re at it, stock your dorm with healthy snacks. Avoid packaged, processed snacks and instead keep fruits and peanut butter, or carrots and hummus and other natural foods that can fuel you without compromising health.
Another strategy might be to chew food deliberately and take smaller bites, leading to quicker satiety due to a connection between hormones secreted in the digestive tract that send signals to the brain. When we eat quickly, we give our body less time to make these digestive hormones that break down our food and signal us to stop eating, but we can combat this by simply being more vigilant of our pace.
It may feel difficult to stay wary of what we intake, which is where calorie counting comes in. A blog post by Harvard Health states the benefits of calorie counting, including giving students a set, tangible end goal to reach, which is often a great source of motivation. Smartphones are especially handy for this, with dozens of well-reviewed calorie tracking apps like MyFitnessPal and MyNetDiary that make logging calories easy. App notifications including reminders to drink water and log meals can help students stay on track with their health without putting in much mental effort or interfering with their daily workload.
Aside from food itself, making sure that you sleep enough is a big factor in how well your body will respond to how much you eat. The less energy you have, the more empty calories you will feel the need to intake daily. There are ways to regulate sleep which require self-accountability, including making executive choices to avoid social plans late on weekdays, and making mental notes to avoid harsh lighting and looking at backlit screens directly before sleep. Setting alarms for when it will be ideal to put your phone and computer away and get ready for bed is a good way to manage this.
Physical activity is another way to maintain weight, because the amount of exercise you do directly affects your mood, and your emotions directly affect your relationship with food. Take advantage of the Rec center, or simply go for a walk every now and then. Staying active could even mean doing small things like choosing to take the stairs rather than an elevator or standing rather than sitting while waiting for something. Activity trackers such as smart watches are options to accelerate a lifestyle transition like this, with many devices worn on the wrist or the waist, that help keep track of our steps each day. They can be used to track exercise, calories burned, steps taken and amount of time standing, and can be used as a motivational tool, with various notifications throughout the day helping you monitor your progress toward your daily goals.