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How to Eat Healthy in College

By Casey Slide

eating healthy in collegeAccording to an extensive survey conducted by the federal government on college weight gain, college freshmen gain an average of nearly eight pounds during the school year – most of it in their first semester. While 14% of students are considered overweight or obese before entering college, 17% are overweight or obese by the end of that first year.

Unfortunately, the weight-gaining does not end there. Students studied in the survey gained an additional couple of pounds during their second year as well. So with the odds stacked against college students, how can you eat healthy while on a college student’s budget?

What You Need to Know

Know What It Means to Eat Healthy

You cannot eat healthy if you do not know what it means to eat healthy. Don’t fall for the ploys of marketers, who often label products with such adjectives as “all-natural” or “healthy,” even when those labels are misleading. Many products are offered as “low-fat” or “fat-free,” but are high in calories and contain a large amount of artificial ingredients. To make matters more confusing, foods that are typically healthy become unhealthy depending on how they are cooked – fried chicken is a perfect example.

So what exactly constitutes healthy eating? Doctors and health experts will give you various rules, but here are some agreed upon facts about how to eat healthy:

  • Eat Food in Its Most Natural State. The more food has been processed, the less nutrients you will receive and the more artificial additives you will consume. If there are more than five ingredients listed on a food product, it is likely over-processed. If there are ingredients you can’t pronounce, it is not natural.
  • You Can Never Go Wrong Eating Fruits and Veggies. Fruits and vegetables are a healthy choice at any time. Try to consume them in a natural state, such as raw, steamed, sautéed, or juiced.
  • Avoid Sugar as Much as Possible. This includes all artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin. If you are going to use a sweetener, choose one that is all-natural and less refined. Honey, pure maple syrup, and stevia are considered the healthiest choices.
  • Eat a Balanced Diet by Following the USDA’s Food GuidelinesChooseMyPlate is the USDA’s updated version of their food pyramid. While you can never go wrong with fruits and veggies, it is also important to consume a balanced diet including protein and grains.
  • Always Choose Whole Grains. Whole grains are grains that have not had their bran and germ removed in the milling process, and include nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins, folic acid, potassium, and magnesium. Furthermore, studies show that there is a link between consuming whole grains and weight loss, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases like diabetes.

choose to eat whole grain breads

Know How to Budget

Every college student has their own unique financial situation, so there is no special formula for creating a food budget. The budget of a student working their way through school will be different than one who is receiving substantial college scholarships or who is receiving an allowance from his or her parents.

Regardless of your circumstances, follow these steps for creating a food budget:

  1. Determine the amount of money you have coming in each month.
  2. Calculate how much money you have going out each month for fixed expenses, such as rent. If your expenses fluctuate because tuition is due twice a year, spread the amount evenly across all months, and don’t spend what you set aside for tuition.
  3. Subtract your expenses from your income. What remains is the money you have to spend on non-fixed expenses, such as food, clothing, and entertainment.
  4. Take the amount of spending money you have and designate an amount that is reasonable for food, taking into consideration all the other things you will need and want to buy each month.
  5. In the months that follow, only spend the amount you have budgeted for food. If the amount is insufficient, adjust it accordingly. To ensure that you do not spend over your budgeted amount, try using the envelope budgeting system.

Tips for Eating Healthy in College

Once you understand healthy eating and have set aside an appropriate food budget, it’s time to put that knowledge into practice. Here are some tips to make that easier:

1. Make Smart Choices in the Dining Hall

If you have a meal plan, you’ll definitely save yourself time and money. The downside is that it can be tempting to eat unhealthy foods. Have the self-control to go for the healthier options.

  • Head to the Salad Bar and Load Up on Raw Fruits and Veggies. Be sure to choose a healthy salad dressing, like oil and vinegar; otherwise, your salad will be overloaded with calories, fats, and sugars.
  • Pay Attention to How Foods Are Cooked. If you have a choice, opt for grilled instead of fried.
  • Avoid Overeating, and Don’t Go Back for Seconds. Just because a dining hall is all-you-can-eat doesn’t mean that you need to stuff yourself.
  • Skip Dessert, or Only Have Dessert Once or Twice a Week. When I was in college, I only ate dessert in the dining hall the evening after a big exam as a reward.
  • Pass on the Extras When Offered by the Cook for Made-to-Order Items. For example, if you are eating breakfast and the cook is making eggs to order, skip  the cheese and other unnecessary toppings.
  • Go for the Power Foods, Especially for Breakfast. Your body and brain need the energy for a long day of studying. Eat eggs and oatmeal, and skip the sugary cereal.

oatmeal keeps you full and gives you energy

2. Always Opt for Water

This is where so many Americans fail themselves and their diets. Soda, coffee, energy drinks, and other sugary beverages are easily available, but don’t be fooled into thinking you need them to keep you awake to study. A tall glass of water will do the trick and is much better for you.

Additionally, drink alcohol in moderation and only if you are of age. Remember that alcoholic beverages are high in calories and in price. If you are going to drink coffee, don’t go overboard on the sugar and cream. Skip the fancy coffee drinks and order the drip coffee.

3. Have Healthy Snacks in Your Dorm

Great dorm room snacks include nuts, dried fruit, granola, peanut butter, carrots, and plain popcorn. Don’t buy junk food like potato chips and cookies for your room. If you don’t have it available, you can’t eat it.

4. Aim for Three Meals a Day

Depending on your class and work schedule, it may be a challenge for you to eat three square meals a day. However, do your best to eat a healthy, full meal at an appropriate time. Not only will this keep your body satisfied, but you’ll be fueling your brain. It will also prevent you from starving and overindulging when having too much time between meals.

5. Avoid Late Snacking or Dining

College students are known for sleeping in and staying up late. While this is part of the culture, make sure not to indulge yourself in late night snacks or an extra meal by ordering a pizza. The best way to avoid this is to have better time management skills, and not wait to study until the last minute. You’ll also test better if you are well-rested.

6. Eat Superfoods That Are Low in Price

To save money, try to eat foods that will fill you up for the least amount of money. I call these superfoods because they give your mind and body the power to function longer than processed foods. Here are some that are low in price:

  • Eggs make an easy meal on the go, especially if you hard boil them ahead of time.
  • Oatmeal will keep you full longer than cold cereal. Opt for steel-cut or “old-fashioned” oats that you cook on a stove top. Instant oatmeal is loaded with sugar and additives, and will not keep you satiated for very long
  • Rice is incredibly cheap and goes well with almost anything. Opt for brown rice, as it includes the entire grain, and consider making a rice and beans recipe.
  • Beans are also good for you and your wallet. While soaking them and cooking them yourself is most cost-effective, it might be more realistic for you as a college student to buy them canned.
  • Avocados can be very affordable, especially during the spring when they are in season. While avocados are high in calories, they provide good fats that will power your brain.
  • Peanut Butter is high in calories, but the protein will help you stay full. Avoid peanut butter with sugar and other additives, and instead purchase peanut butter that lists only peanuts and salt as ingredients.
  • Apples are the absolute best study snacks. They give you the same amount of energy as a cup of coffee.

apples are a great study snack

7. Go With the Basics When Out to Eat

In college, you’ll inevitably be going out to eat, so when you do, enjoy yourself – but don’t overdo it either. Keep your meal basic without all the extras to keep the cost and the calories down. Here are some examples:

  • Order a baked potato with a little butter instead of overloaded with cheese and sour cream.
  • Get a cheese pizza or a veggie pizza instead of one covered in greasy, fatty meats. Also, don’t order extra cheese.
  • Go light on the toppings at a burrito or sandwich joint.

8. Cook in a Group

Not much actual cooking takes place when you live in a dorm. The facilities usually do not accommodate it, nor do students want to take the time.

In order to eat more home-cooked meals, find some friends with whom you can start a dinner club: Get together once a week to make a meal and socialize. Not only is this a fun way to spend your evening, it’s nice to have a real meal. By cooking a meal as a group, you split the cost of the food, making it reasonable for any budget.

9. Shop Smart for Groceries

Depending on whether you have a meal plan, you may or may not frequent the grocery store. Regardless, there are plenty of ways to save money when shopping for groceries:

10. Indulge on Occasion

It can be a real challenge to eat healthy while in college, so give yourself a break every once in a while. Order a pizza, go out to eat, or get some ice cream – but not more than once per week. Do it as a reward for eating healthy on a budget, not as a stress reliever. Indulging will never alleviate the stress of being a college student.

it's okay to indulge on occasion

Final Word

Eating healthy while on a budget in college is hard. It’s almost as hard as attaining good grades, and it is just as important. What good are high grades and a great career if your health fails you? Don’t put yourself in that position. College can still be the time of your life even if you eat smart and spend your money wisely.

What tips do you have for eating healthy in college? What affordable, nutritious foods help keep you going?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Casey Slide
Casey Slide lives with her husband and baby in Atlanta, GA. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for a prominent hospital in Atlanta. With the birth of Casey’s son in February 2010, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. Casey’s interests include reading, running, living green, and saving money.

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  • Jeff

    Another thing that goes along with eating healthy is working out. There are tons of free workouts that college students can apply to their health eating habits!

    • professor

      dont forget to jerk it several times aday to burn extra calories

    • Casey Slide

      That is a great point, Jeff! I appreciate you adding that!

  • http://www.carinsurancecomparison.com/ Tyler S.

    I’ve used that apple equal to a cup of coffee statistic before! :) Don’t forget that fruits are packed with sugar, so you don’t necessarily want to overload on them.

    • Casey Slide

      True, true that fruits have quite a bit of sugar, but it is natural sugar so it’s not as bad as eating a bunch of refined sugar.

  • Skirnir Hamilton

    My main comment is colleges tended not to have much fresh fruits and vegetables available to students. And my problem in college was portion sizes and yes, dessert. I had never seen an ice cream sundae bar before college and had to do it every Sunday, even to the point of not being able to eat all I had grabbed.

    • Casey Slide

      Wow, that is a shame that you have witnessed that. An ice cream sundae bar would be really difficult to resist.

  • EMM

    Don’t spend all your money or calories on alcohol!!!

    • Casey Slide

      Exactly! And it can cost more than just money and calories unfortunately: grades, relationships, your health.

  • professor

    dont forget to jerk it several times aday to burn extra calories

  • http://www.brokeelizabeth.com/ BrokeElizabeth

    I’m definitely in favor of oatmeal – I eat it every day for breakfast, and spend very little money on it.

    • Casey Slide

      That was my breakfast of choice when in college because of the price. After researching and writing this article, I’m going to be eating more of it. Thanks for your feedback!

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